Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Science, Technology, and Society • Civic Ideals and Practices

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The first version of Mickey Mouse, from the 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie



Mickey Goes Public

Disney no longer controls its oldest mouse. What happens now?

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Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Steamboat Willie

You may have noticed Mickey and Minnie Mouse popping up more than you’re used to—and not just in the usual places. Why? For 95 years, these famous characters have been under copyright. That means only creator Walt Disney (1901-1966) and his company could use them. But in January, the copyright for the cartoon they first appeared in expired. As a result, Mickey and Minnie are both now in the public domain, meaning people can freely use their images—on T-shirts, in video games, or even in new cartoons or movies.

Still, it’s complicated. People are allowed to use only the version of the characters from Steamboat Willie in 1928. The first cartoon with sound, it helped launch the Disney empire. Later versions of Mickey and Minnie—including how they appear today—are still protected by copyright law.

What’s the purpose of copyrights? The limits protect artists’ creations, but they expire so that everyone can eventually benefit from the work, say experts such as Jennifer Jenkins of Duke Law School in North Carolina. After all, many movies, novels, and songs that are popular today are based on older versions in the public domain (see "Other Works in the Public Domain," below)

“It’s important [to have] meaningful access to older works for inspiring future creativity,” Jenkins told The New York Times

Other Works in the Public Domain (and what they’ve inspired)

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Created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, Holmes has inspired many adaptations since the first story’s copyright ended, such as this series about his sister, Enola (right).

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This fairy tale was dreamed up centuries ago. Creators are free to reinvent its characters—including the evil fairy godmother Disney now calls Maleficent (right)

Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Katharine Woodman-Maynard LLC. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.


The 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel entered the public domain in 2021. A slew of versions since then include a graphic novel (right), a new musical, and an upcoming film. 

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Skills Sheets (3)
Skills Sheets (3)
Lesson Plan (1)