Midjourney’s rendering of Steamboat Willie, free

Steamboat Willie, reborn in peace

2 min readJan 1, 2024


Today, Congress allowed Steamboat Willie — the origin cartoon for Mickey Mouse — to pass into the public domain. Eric Eldred helped make this happen, when, 25 years ago, he challenged Congress’s practice of extending the terms of existing copyright. By 1999, Congress had done that 11 times in the previous 40 years.

Eldred’s challenge was grounded in the text of the Constitution — which gives Congress the power to secure the monopoly right of copyright for “limited times” only — and it drew together an extraordinary diversity of support, including the Free Software Foundation, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, and 17 economists, including Kenneth Arrow, Ronald Coase, and Milton Friedman (who said he’d join the brief only if the words “no brainer” were used to describe the argument).

The Supreme Court rejected that challenge 7–2 (Justices Stevens and Breyer each had fantastic dissents). But Eldred’s fight triggered a movement (including Creative Commons) to resist this plundering of the public domain in the name of extending the benefits to a lucky few. Because the real cost of perpetual term extension is the 99% of creative work that, unlike Steamboat Willie, has no clear owner, and so rots and decays and is forgotten because archives, libraries, publishers, and (re)creators can’t risk using it without clearing it in advance.

I’m sure there will be a host of clever remixes of Steamboat Willie, some brilliant and many not. I’m going to collect my favorites here:

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(Send suggestions for others!)

So let’s launch the New Year with gratitude for everyone who made this victory stick. Work first began to pass into the public domain again in 2019. (See the amazing Center for the Public Domain archive.) Today, that practice passed a critical milestone. Let’s hope we’ve relearned why we protect a public domain (Paul Heald’s work is a great introduction.) More importantly, let’s share and build upon that public domain in ways that make that learning obvious.