Happy Public Domain Day 2024!

by Valentino Giudice on

This blog post is dedicated to the public domain through CC0.

I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

The 1st of January is Public Domain Day: the day in which a new batch of works enters the public domain and becomes free for all to build upon, promoting progress, culture and creativity.

The public domain

Original artistic and literary works of authorship are covered by copyright (or “author’s rights”) from the moment they exist in a tangible medium. Some international uniformity is provided by the Berne Convention.

Certain economic rights, such as to reproduce the work, to distribute it, perform it or to prepare derivatives, are reserved for licensing to the author or the author’s employer for a limited amount of time. Some moral rights are also reserved to the author. These, however, change more widely across countries and are even perpetual in several.

The public domain consists of those works which are not protected by authors’ (economic) rights. This could be because they have expired or they were never applicable or, maybe, because the holder has willingly decided to allow unrestricted use of the work.

The duration of copyright protection varies across jurisdiction. In many countries, however, terms run to the end of the year, making the 1st of January, when a new batch of works becomes free to use, Public Domain Day.

The Mickey Mouse Protection Act

In the United States, the first appearance of Disney’s character Mickey Mouse was originally set to enter the public domain in 1984. That was then postponed to 2004 through a new Copyright Act. Finally, Disney, together with other companies, lobbied for another copyright extension.

The Mickey Mouse Protection Act of 1998 extended copyright terms in the US to the life of the author plus 70 years (matching the European Union) or, for works made for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous ones, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation (whichever is shorter).

Disney itself built massively on the public domain, including with films like Robin Hood, Peter Pan, Tarzan and Cinderella. This didn’t stop it from working hard to deprive it through its lobbying efforts.

Mickey first appeared in 1928 in Steamboat Willie. Accordingly, copyright on the film expires right at the end of 2023 (95 years from publication): on Public Domain Day 2024. Later versions of the character will remain protected.

Copyright had already expired on some earlier Disney works, but this Public Domain Day is still significant. After capitalizing on the public domain, while lobbying to hold it down, Disney will finally (involuntarily) contribute its most iconic character to it.

Mickey in the world

Whether Steamboat Willie falls in the public domain in any given jurisdiction depends on its laws.

Multiple countries follow the rule of the shorter term, according to which the duration of copyright protection shall not exceed the term fixed in the country of origin of the work. Wherever this provision applies, Steamboat Willie falls in the public domain because it does in the US.

In the European Union copyright protection runs for 70 years after the death of the last surviving author. Member states generally follow the rule of the shorter term towards third countries, but there are exceptions.

In 2023, a German court applied a 1892 agreement between Germany and the United States, concluding that a US work would continue to receive protection under domestic law regardless of whether it was still protected in its country of origin.

Mickey in Italy

Several Italian news outlets have announced the pending entrance of Mickey Mouse into the public domain, but did so making little to no reference to the law.

Regarding a dispute about the character Zorro, the Italian Court of Cassation found, in 2017, that US works enjoy protection for the same duration as domestic ones. This considered agreements between the two countries and the indefinite suspension, in 1946, of an otherwise relevant article. The opinion was referenced again in 2022, as part of the same case.

If Mickey is anything like Zorro, it seems unlikely that 2024 can set its Public Domain Day in Italy. Instead, it may remain protected until 70 years after the death of the last surviving author of Steamboat Willie.

Italy’s classical masterpieces

Overall, Italian authors’ rights law is rather complex and outdated. Nonetheless, it’s actually some articles in the Cultural Heritage Code which hinder commercial uses of works which have been in the public domain for a long time.

The Cultural Heritage Code has lead to decisions against uses of David by Michelangelo, which have attracted criticism. It’s also not the only work being restricted for this reason.

Your own work in the public domain

Copyright protection is automatic. But what if you actually want everyone to use it without restrictions? That’s easily done and you don’t need to be dead for 70 years!

One of the best tools you can use to dedicate your works to the public domain is arguably the CC0 waiver by the Creative Commons organization, which is cleverly crafted to grant the maximum level of freedom internationally. CC0 is what I used for this post. Alternatively, you can effectively achieve the same effect by using an all-permissive public-domain-equivalent licence, such as the WTFPL.

For software, CC0 has the problem of expressly not licensing patents. Instead, you may use alternatives approved by the Open Source Initiative, such as the Unlicense or the public-domain-equivalent Zero-Clause BSD licence and MIT No Attribution License.

Public domain assets

The following is a very incomplete list of online places where to find assets in the public domain:

Additional resources