When The Jazz Singer debuted in 1927, audiences were astounded by the technical triumph of the “talkie.” Young animator Walt Disney was so inspired by the technology, he created a short film that would launch a billion-dollar media empire. The following year, Disney co-produced and co-directed one of the first cartoons with synchronized sound, Steamboat Willie, a smash hit that introduced audiences nationwide to two of pop culture’s most enduring creations: Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
Now, as of January 1, the film—along with other copyrighted works from 1928—has entered the public domain in the United States. For lawyers, scholars, artists and other onlookers, the expiration of Mickey’s copyright is a big deal.
“The public domain has had some famous recent arrivals, but this is the most anticipated entry yet,” writes Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke University School of Law’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, on the center’s website. “Why? It is not simply that Mickey is a famous copyrighted character. So are Sherlock Holmes and Winnie-the-Pooh, and while they entered the public domain with some fanfare, it paled in comparison to this event.”
Every year, Jenkins publishes a detailed breakdown of works entering the public domain. This year’s list includes thousands of works published in 1928, as well as sound recordings released in 1923. Over the last few decades, the federal legislation that established the longevity of copyright protections was heavily influenced by the Walt Disney Company, among others, trying to keep valuable intellectual property under their control.
According to the copyright laws at the time, Steamboat Willie was originally scheduled to enter the public domain in 1984, fifty-six years after it was released. That timeline was lengthened several times, most recently in 1998 by a congressional act that established the current 95-year limit. The Walt Disney Company famously lobbied hard for this extension, leading the law to become known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”
Even with Mickey’s copyright expired, many caveats remain. Namely, only the 1928 version of the character is public domain, while later versions remain protected. While still unmistakably Mickey, his look evolved in the early years, first donning white gloves in 1929 and taking the biggest leap to his more recognizable visage in 1939. Which details of Mickey’s appearance are protected by copyright may be decided in future court cases.
Works enter the public domain when their copyrights expire, making them free for anyone to use or build upon without permission. Trademark law, however, is an altogether different beast. Trademarks cover words, symbols, designs or expressions that identify a product’s brand—and they don’t expire after a set period of time. Their purpose is to avoid misleading consumers regarding who produced a product or work. “If you make your own Mickey cartoon, can Disney use trademark law to interfere?” writes Jenkins. “Trademark law is all about preventing consumer confusion—and not about getting in the way of creativity—so it depends on whether people are likely to be misled about the source of your cartoon. As long as no one thinks it is a Disney joint, there should not be a trademark problem.”
Disney’s successful lobbying to strengthen copyright laws is notable to Jenkins, considering the company’s reliance on source materials from the public domain for its own stories and characters. Its films are based on works by Hans Christian Andersen (Frozen, The Little Mermaid), Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), the Brothers Grimm (Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Tangled) and many others. Mickey himself is partially based on actors like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.
“Disney is both an emblem of term extension and its erosion of the public domain, and one of the strongest use cases in favor of the maintenance of a rich public domain,” writes Jenkins. “Mickey is the symbol of both tendencies. Ironies abound.”
While the spotlight is understandably on Mickey and Minnie, many other enduring works also entered the public domain on January 1. Here’s a selection of some of those books, movies, plays, musical compositions and sound recordings:
The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne
Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo! Tigger, the ridikkerous, lovable, bouncy ol’ buddy boy, joined his pal Pooh in the public domain this year. The original Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) was opened up to free use in 2022, which “sparked a range of creativity,” writes Jenkins. “The most publicity went to celebrity and incongruous reuses, from Ryan Reynolds’ ‘Winnie-the-Screwed’ ad for Mint Mobile to a comic strip in which Pooh celebrates his nudity, to the horror film Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.” The character of Tigger, however, had to wait two years, as he didn’t appear until The House at Pooh Corner’s publication in 1928. In Chapter 2, Pooh discovers the talking toy tiger outside his door in the middle of the night. He invites the stranger in, promising they’ll have some honey in the morning. “Do Tiggers like honey?” asks Pooh. Tigger replies: “They like everything.” (When he tries a “large mouthful” of honey at breakfast, he declares: “Tiggers don’t like honey.”)
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
Even though it was published in 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned for decades in several countries due to its explicit language and candid descriptions of sex. The novel centers on Constance Reid, a young woman in a passionless marriage, who has an affair with her husband’s gamekeeper. When the book publisher Penguin finally released the unexpurgated version of the text in 1960, it prompted a high-profile obscenity trial, which the publisher won. “The acquittal was a victory for moral relativism and sexual tolerance, as well as for literary freedom,” wrote the Guardian in 2010. “No other jury verdict in British history has had such a deep social impact.”
In the months following the trial, Penguin sold three million copies of the book.
Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up by J. M. Barrie
The play about Peter Pan’s adventures in Neverland with Wendy, John and Michael Darling premiered in 1904; the novel that followed, Peter and Wendy, was published in 1911. Despite the fact that the original play is nearing its 120th birthday, it only now has entered the public domain in the U.S. “Why the delay?” writes Jenkins. “Because the play’s script was not ‘published’ for copyright purposes until 1928, pushing back its copyright expiration until 2024.” As with Steamboat Willie, the copyright is expiring only on the original story, and later Peter Pan adaptations, including the Disney movie musical, remain protected.
Barrie based Peter Pan on the stories he told to the young boys of his friend Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. Many years later, after the work became a hit, he famously gave the copyright to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, explaining that “at one time, Peter Pan was an invalid in the hospital … and it was he who put me up to the little thing I did.” Even though the copyright in England has long expired, a 1988 act of Parliament included a special provision allowing the hospital to receive royalties in perpetuity.
“Mack the Knife”
Before it became a Bobby Darin hit, “Mack the Knife” was a song from The Threepenny Opera, a German musical drama that premiered in 1928. Created by writer and lyricist Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, the production follows the London criminal Macheath—known as “Mackie Messer” or “Mack the Knife.” The eponymous song introduces the character and details some of his illegal escapades. Louis Armstrong recorded the first American version, while Darin’s followed in 1959. As Smithsonian magazine put it in 2016, “By the time it got to Darin, Macheath’s dastardly deeds had been cleaned up a bit, but the song still struck a nerve with listeners.”
Director Charlie Chaplin won a special Academy Award for directing, producing and writing The Circus, which is often listed among his greatest works. The silent film’s protagonist, known as the Tramp, is running from the police when he finds himself giving an accidental performance in the middle of a circus. He is subsequently hired, and he continues to perform without knowing that he’s performing, as the ringmaster always positions him so that he’ll be unwittingly thrust into the spotlight. “Chaplin here explicitly explores the nature of comedy itself,” wrote Charles Silver, the longtime head of the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Study Center, in 2010. “The Tramp as a clown in The Circus is unable to be anything but inadvertently funny, unlike Chaplin, who achieved his unparalleled results only through the most conscious and painstaking efforts.”
“Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” by Cole Porter
Today, composer and songwriter Cole Porter’s enduring legacy is evident, but he didn’t achieve widespread renown until he was in his late 30s. One of his first big successes was the 1928 Broadway musical Paris, which featured the song “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” He was especially well-known for his fresh, witty lyrics—which often included scandalous or suggestive double entendres—and so-called catalog songs, which are rooted in a list format.
In Spain the best upper sets do it
Lithuanians and Letts do it
Let’s do it
Let’s fall in love
Since “Let’s Do It” debuted, it has been recorded by the likes of Mary Martin, Eartha Kitt, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
“Those who open Orlando expecting another novel in the vein of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse will discover, to their joy or sorrow, that once more Mrs. Woolf has broken with tradition and convention,” warned a New York Times review in 1928. Woolf’s novel follows Orlando, an angsty, lovelorn young man born during the reign of Elizabeth I. During a days-long slumber, Orlando transforms into a woman, proceeding to live—without visibly aging—for 300 years, up to the present day. Woolf based the character on Vita Sackville-West, a fellow member of the Bloomsbury group, with whom she had a years-long romantic relationship. In a 1927 diary entry, the author described Orlando as “Vita; only with a change about from one sex to another.”
“Yes! We Have No Bananas”
Copyright law treats sound recordings and musical compositions differently. The reasons underlying this discrepancy are complex, stemming from the erratic array of state laws that controlled works in this medium for many decades. Legislation in 2018 brought more comprehensive federal protection to recordings, though it also introduced a slightly different timeline for when their copyrights expire.
The upshot is that on January 1, one hundred-year-old recordings from 1923 entered the public domain—including several versions of Frank Silver and Irving Cohn’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” Silver explained what inspired the song in a 1923 interview with Time: “About a year ago my little orchestra was playing at a Long Island hotel,” he said. “To and from the hotel I was wont to stop at a fruit stand owned by a Greek, who began every sentence with ‘Yes.’ The jingle of his idiom haunted me and my friend Cohn.”
The Man Who Laughs
Based on an 1869 Victor Hugo novel of the same name, The Man Who Laughs is a romantic drama detailing the love story between Dea, a blind woman, and Gwynplaine, a nobleman with a frightening grin carved permanently into his face. Directed by German Expressionist filmmaker Paul Leni, the production imprinted Gwynplaine’s unsettling visage into American cultural memory. Today, however, the face is best known as the inspiration for Batman’s iconic nemesis, the Joker. “Those early appearances of the Joker are unmistakably based on Gwynplaine’s look, right down to the hairstyle, combed to a peak in the back,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter in 2019. “While the character’s look has evolved over the years, comic artists and writers have repeatedly come back to Veidt’s performance and Leni’s film in crafting the Joker.”
Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy (the silent version)
Strictly speaking, Mickey and Minnie made their first appearance several months before Steamboat Willie’s premiere. In 1928, the duo starred in Plane Crazy, a silent film that was shown at a test screening but never found a distributor. Steamboat Willie, on the other hand, was an astounding success. One of the first cartoons with synchronized sound, the short film set the stage for Disney’s enduring legacy, heralded a new era of animation and ushered in decades of fierce legal battles over copyright legislation in the U.S.