Mickey Mouse is in the Public Domain

by Gooten Editorial Team on Mar. 7, 2024

Here’s What That Means for Print on Demand Sellers

When you’re designing print on demand apparel, it’s always tempting to invoke the imagery from your favorite intellectual properties. After all, who doesn’t love a good Darth Vader T-shirt? A hoodie featuring Harry Potter? Totes or canvas bags that celebrate Game of Thrones, Frozen, or Pokemon?

The problem with all of these properties, of course, is that somebody owns them. By selling images of Darth Vader, you’d be expressly violating the intellectual property rights of Disney. The legal ramifications for this type of violation could be extreme, with penalties so steep they could put your print on demand shop out of business altogether. Alternatively, you can pay to license those images, but doing so is seldom cheap.

Fortunately, some formerly-copyrighted characters are now readily available for use in your print on demand designs… including a few characters associated with the House of Mouse, not least Mickey and Minnie themselves.

But what exactly is the public domain? What does it mean for print on demand sellers? And what are some examples of popular public domain characters? Read on as we address each of these questions and more.

Print on Demand Design Trends, 2024 Edition

What is Public Domain?

When we talk about public domain, we’re simply talking about books or other creative properties that don’t have a copyright attached to them. Works in the public domain aren’t “owned” by anyone, which means you’re free to draw upon them for any of your print on demand products, without any need to pay a licensing fee.

Crucially, the public domain also includes properties where the license or copyright has either been forfeited or simply expired. In other words, some properties that are owned and licensed today may enter into the public domain at a later time.

When Do Properties Enter the Public Domain?

So how long does it take for a copyright to lapse, and for a particular property to enter the public domain?

It actually depends on the country you’re in. In most countries, copyrights lapse 70 years after the death of the author (or, in the case where there are multiple authors/creators, the death of the last living author). In some places, the timeline is longer; in Mexico, for instance, it’s a full century.

In the United States, every book from before 1929 is automatically considered public domain. For things published and copyrighted between 1929 and 1978, copyrights last for 95 years, assuming that copyright is correctly registered and maintained.

Enter Mickey

The long and the short of it is, there are countless public domain characters and properties that you can use in your print on demand merchandise, without having to pay a licensing fee or risking legal consequences.

In January 2024, the original Mickey and Minnie Mouse have entered the public domain, meaning it’s free and clear to place these iconic Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy characters within your original designs. Be aware however that copyright laws vary by country, so in some places Mickey remains protected.

A few other characters that recently became available in the public domain include:

  • J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan
  • Tigger from The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne
  • Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein’s Monster, Ebenezer Scrooge, King Kong, and countless other well-known characters

Extend Your Product Line with Public Domain Characters

The bottom line is that these public domain properties provide an excellent way to expand your print on demand catalog, all while leveraging the appeal of well-known and widely-loved characters. A few well-curated Mickey Mouse images may be just the thing for sprucing up your inventory.

We’d love to tell you more about implementing strategies for print on demand success. With any questions, reach out to the Gooten team today.

Here are some apparel products to consider: