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  • Writer's pictureRolanzo White, Esq.

Steamboat Willie is in the public domain; now what?

With Steamboat Willie now in the public domain, what are the rules for its usage and other popular works in the public domain?

In a landmark moment for copyright enthusiasts, the iconic Mickey Mouse cartoon "Steamboat Willie" joined the ranks of public domain works on January 1, 2024. This transition heralds a new era where this piece is no longer under the constraints of copyright protection, allowing for its free use without the need for authorization.


The public domain is a treasure trove that includes works whose copyright terms have expired and those that did not meet the requirements of statutory formalities under the 1909 Copyright Act (as seen in Fleischer Studios, Inc. v. A.V.E.L.A., Inc.). It's a realm where creativity meets history, offering a rich resource for creators and scholars alike.


One of the most exciting aspects of public domain works is the liberty to transform them. Beyond mere duplication, the public can engage with these materials creatively, crafting derivative works by altering or combining elements from the original. Imagine the possibilities: new stories, artworks, or even multimedia adaptations, all springing from the roots of public domain materials. For example, when Winnie-the-Pooh entered the public domain, he was immediately made into a slasher film. We can anticipate similar works based on the original "Steamboat Willie."

This freedom to make derivatives, however, is not absolute. It's crucial to understand that while derivative works can be based on public domain content, they must not infringe upon active copyrights (as outlined in Warner Bros. Entm't, Inc. v. X One X Prods.).


A notable example of this delicate balance is the case of Mickey Mouse. While "Steamboat Willie" is now available for use, contemporary iterations of Mickey Mouse, including his recognizable white gloves and various modern adaptations, remain under copyright. So, if you decide to use "Steamboat Willie" I would avoid expanding your source material past what is in the original work.


Furthermore, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) plays a significant role in safeguarding public domain works. It ensures that once a work enters the public domain, it remains there, impervious to claims of intellectual property rights. This means no entity can extract a public domain work and claim exclusive rights over it, a principle firmly established in United States v. Elcom Ltd.

For clarity, here is a list of Public Domain Dos and Don'ts:


  1.  Use Freely: You are free to use works in the public domain without needing permission or paying royalties.

  2. Create Derivative Works: Feel free to make derivative works by adding to, altering, or combining elements from public domain materials.

  3. Share and Distribute: You can share and distribute public domain works as widely as you wish.

  4. Use for Commercial Purposes: Public domain works can be used for commercial purposes without any restrictions.

  5. Research Copyright Status: Ensure the work is truly in the public domain, especially if it's a derivative work or was subject to earlier copyright laws.

  6. Credit the Original Creator: Although not legally required, it's good practice to credit the original creator or source of the public domain work.



  1.  Infringe on Active Copyrights: Be cautious not to infringe upon the rights of works that are not in the public domain, especially when creating derivative works.

  2. Assume All Derivatives Are Public Domain: Just because a work is based on a public domain piece, it doesn't automatically make the derivative work public domain.

  3. Ignore New Copyrights: Understand that while the original work may be in the public domain, new elements added to a derivative work may be subject to copyright.

  4. Claim Exclusive Rights: You cannot claim exclusive rights over a public domain work or restrict others from using it.

  5. Misrepresent Copyright Status: Avoid misrepresenting the copyright status of a work. If it's in the public domain, make it clear.

  6. Overlook Regional Differences: Remember that copyright laws and the status of public domain works can vary by country.

  7. Use Trademarked Elements: Be aware that some aspects of a work (like Mickey Mouse's iconic white gloves) may be trademarked and are not part of the public domain.


In conclusion, the entrance of "Steamboat Willie" and other works into the public domain marks a significant opportunity for creative exploration and cultural enrichment. As stewards of this shared cultural heritage, it's vital to understand and respect the boundaries of copyright law to foster an environment where creativity can flourish.


Check out the original "Steamboat Willie": (

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