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What Is Public Domain?

Steamboat Willie has entered the public domain, but what does that exactly mean?
Taylor Koehnemann
Steamboat Willie is broken from the chains of copyright and has officially entered the public domain.

The 2024 new year finally has rolls around. Although this year brings a new surprise. On Jan. 1 of this year, Steamboat Willie (Mickey Mouse), had reached public domain. Within the first week of the new year, there had been multiple horror-based Steamboat Willie projects confirmed. All the way from movies to video games. If you’ve been keeping up with this topic, Steamboat Willie isn’t the only character to go public domain.

Other pop culture characters have also gone public within the last couple of years as well. This includes characters like Winnie The Pooh, Piglet, King Kong, Frankenstein’s Monster, etc. With most of these characters being public domain, a lot of people have used these for projects of their own. Some of the most popular projects are horror media and a big one to name is “Winnie The Pooh: Blood And Honey.”

The biggest question on most people’s minds when these iconic characters are free to use out of nowhere is, “Why do characters go public domain?” So it starts back when the character is first created. People have the option to copyright claim their property or creation, which means only the company that made it is the only set of people that are allowed to use it in their media. Companies like Disney can be very strict on the copyright claim policy.

After a while, a copyrighted creation will go public domain unless acted upon with an extension. An extension can be used only once for a second term. Disney, on the other hand, had pushed these limits with the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse. After getting a second term in 1984, the next date for public domain was 2004. In the mid-90s, Disney once again had worried about Steamboat Willie’s release. So Disney decided to lobby again for another extension.

Thankfully for Disney, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act had been able to extend everything by another 20 years. Eventually it had gotten to the point where this would be the last extension for Disney to keep Steamboat Willie. The day would inevitably have to come, and Disney would have to face defeat for Steamboat Willie and the public domain. 

Unfortunately for other characters like the more iconic Mickey Mouse with the red pants, white gloves, and yellow boots, it has a pretty firm trademark. Trademarks on the other hand don’t have an expiration date. As long as a trademark is used frequently for a company, then the trademark is forever protected. So for the moment, Steamboat Willie seems to be our only Mickey Mouse that the public will be able to use. 

Moving back too soon to expire copyrights, other popular characters push their way into the public domain soon too. Characters like Batman, Superman, and Donald Duck will all be in the public domain sometime during the 2030’s as well. Or will other companies find another way to extend their properties similar to Disney?

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About the Contributor
Taylor Koehnemann
Taylor Koehnemann, Reporter
Taylor Koehnemann is a senior reporter for The Ledger. This is his final year being a reporter for publications. Taylor co-operates a YouTube channel. He also works at Detail Driven. Last year, Taylor was a starting Ledger magazine member; this year he is working for The Ledger staff once more and hopes he can create amazing stories for people to read and enjoy to end his senior year off on a high note.

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