Mickey Mouse in the public domain? Well, sort of. The copyright in Mickey’s debut in “Steamboat Willie” in 1928 expired on January 1st. The surprising result is that the characters, yes, even Mickey, enter the public domain. Immediately, the production of some Mickey horror movies have already been announced. There will be many more Mickey spinoffs to come.
So, while this does reduce Disney’s rights, Disney still has some strong protections. For instance, only the Steamboat Willie version has entered the public domain. Mickey has evolved over the last century, and the elements of the modern version of Mickey will still be claimed by Disney as protected. Additionally, Disney has a number of trademark registrations for Mickey as well, which never expire.
The result will be many attempting to capitalize on this new opportunity to exploit a famous character, as well as may lawsuits from Disney, all working together to define how much of Mickey will be available for commercial use.
Good article here from the Duke University School of Law for more detail: Mickey, Disney, and the Public Domain: a 95-year Love Triangle | Duke University School of Law