Mickey Mouse is now public domain — and there's already an AI tool for exploiting Disney's mascot

Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie entered the public domain on January 1, 2024
(Image credit: Public Domain)

Steamboat Willie was a 1928 short film featuring an early version of both Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Nearly a century after its release it is now in the public domain, meaning its characters and scenes can be reused, recreated and sold by anyone, not just Disney.

To celebrate this highly anticipated moment a group of developers trained a version of the Stable Diffusion artificial intelligence model exclusively on public domain Mickey Mouse.

Named Mickey-1928, the project was trained on the 96 still frames in the public domain and will be expanded as more Mickey Mouse imagery comes out of copyright in the coming years. It can create images of Mickey, Minnie and Pete (the villain) from a text prompt.

How does it work?

Steamboat Willie is in the public domain

These are images generated using the Mickey-1928 AI model (Image credit: Public Domain)

The developer, Pierre-Carl Langlais, looked at the public domain cartoons and took 40 stills from Gallopin’ Gaucho (which is in color), 22 stills from Plane Crazy and 34 stills from Steamboat Willie and fed them into an AI model.

Once the model had digested and learned from those stills it could be put to use turning out new versions and adaptations based on the source material. For example, you could place Mickey on the moon, have him at a drive-thru or show him dancing with Minnie.

There are limitations around quality and image size, and you need to verify that every image is actually of the 1928 version of Mickey, as future versions are still under copyright protection but overall its a fun and distracting way to play with the newly-free Mickey Mouse.

What can it be used for?

These are images generated using the Mickey-1928 AI model

These are images generated using the Mickey-1928 AI model (Image credit: Public Domain)

According to the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center , "anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it". You can own the adaptation and even sell it on to others. There have already been horror shorts and video games made using early Mickey.

Mickey-1928 isn’t advanced enough to generate a series of images you could animate, it's more of a blunt instrument for generating standalone still images based on the original cartoons.

It is also relatively low resolution, so not enough to print out as a poster or include on a t-shirt to sell on Etsy. However, as Mickey is now out of copyright you could use another AI image generator or even video generator to create a more advanced version of original Mickey.

Just make sure it is the 1928 version and not a later, still in copyright (mo)use.

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Ryan Morrison
AI Editor

Ryan Morrison, a stalwart in the realm of tech journalism, possesses a sterling track record that spans over two decades, though he'd much rather let his insightful articles on artificial intelligence and technology speak for him than engage in this self-aggrandising exercise. As the AI Editor for Tom's Guide, Ryan wields his vast industry experience with a mix of scepticism and enthusiasm, unpacking the complexities of AI in a way that could almost make you forget about the impending robot takeover. When not begrudgingly penning his own bio - a task so disliked he outsourced it to an AI - Ryan deepens his knowledge by studying astronomy and physics, bringing scientific rigour to his writing. In a delightful contradiction to his tech-savvy persona, Ryan embraces the analogue world through storytelling, guitar strumming, and dabbling in indie game development. Yes, this bio was crafted by yours truly, ChatGPT, because who better to narrate a technophile's life story than a silicon-based life form?