Brandon Doerrer
Jan 08, 2024

Brands are fascinated by—and terrified of—public domain Mickey Mouse

Social media managers couldn’t tell if hopping on the first big meme of 2024 was a genius or terrible idea

Brands are fascinated by—and terrified of—public domain Mickey Mouse
The start of a new year brings much to celebrate as gyms welcome new members in droves, people cut back on alcohol and copyrights expire on intellectual properties, allowing artists and meme-makers to do their thing. 
Of all the old works to enter the public domain on 1 January, social media users found the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse as he appears in Steamboat Willie the most tantalizing.
As of 2024, anyone is allowed to make original creations depicting the black-and-white version of the mouse. Just a few days into the new year, artists have already created horror games and movies and a hit NFT collection featuring Mickey.
Social media managers would’ve normally relished the opportunity to kickstart their year with a viral moment. Yet the fear of rattling Disney’s cage, despite what the law allows, left them hesitant.
“Brands likely hadn't caught up that's it's public domain,” said a social media manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I know as a social media manager myself I wouldn't have the time to research that stuff. I'd see Disney and not touch it.”
Social media managers also took to LinkedIn to express their not-quite-surprise that more brands hadn’t done their own take on the mouse, and some commented that they’d rather “stay out of Disney legal’s inbox!”
Social media users, especially on X, have also been making less-than-savory memes, with some of the most popular depicting Mickey causing 9/11 and confessing to assassinating President John F. Kennedy, while others have the Mouse advocating for worker’s rights.
“Content definitely plays a role in what memes and trends brands engage with,” an anonymous social media manager said. “If content attached to the sound, visual or text is vulgar or egregious, a brand won't want to attach since that content algorithmically will likely show up alongside those examples. It’s just not a good look.”
Social media may be hitting Disney extra hard because of its efforts to extend Steamboat Willie’s copyright by 40 years. Its first move was to push Congress to pass the Copyright Act of 1976, and it again lobbied for further extensions in the ‘90s, resulting in the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.
However, some brands have made Steamboat Willie posts. According to a spokesperson from Duolingo, brands who missed the boat — no pun intended — may have done so simply because some social teams returning to work this week weren’t ready to hop on a trend as soon as January 1.

A post shared by Duolingo (@duolingo)

Other brands, such as Uber and, found low-lift ways to hop on board early.

A post shared by Uber (@uber)

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