Steamboat Willie, the 1928 version of Disney’s most iconic characters, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, entered the public domain on January 1, 2024. These works can now legally be shared, performed, reused, repurposed or sampled. These early versions of Mickey and Minnie are just two of the characters that are entering the public domain. In the coming decades, it will be increasingly difficult for big studios like Disney and Warner Brothers to manage as well as preserve intellectual property rights worth billions. For instance, Superman, Batman, Donald Duck and James Bond are some of the well known characters that are set to enter public domain this very decade!
In this article we shall examine what this development means for Disney’s Copyright on Mickey Mouse and how the general public may or may not use the Steamboat Willie version.
Mickey Mouse Protection Act
Under the US Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years from publication or 100 years after creation, whichever is shorter for a work of corporate authorship (works made for hire) and anonymous and pseudonymous works. The 1976 Act also increased the renewal term for works copyrighted before 1978 that had not already entered the public domain from 28 years to 47 years, giving a total term of 75 years.
Thereafter, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 95 years from publication or 120 years after creation, whichever end is earlier. Whereas, for works published before January 1, 1978, the 1998 act extended the renewal term from 47 years to 67 years, granting a total of 95 years.
In other words, these characters that have entered public domain recently, were first set to do so in 1984 but as is well documented, Disney lobbied aggressively and got the United States Congress to pass a law extending the term by 20 years. Following this before the next deadline for expiry of copyright on these characters, which was owned by Disney came up in 2004, the US Congress dutifully passed another 20-year extension.
It is important to note what Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Dukes Centre for the Study of the Public Domain, told the BBC, she said-
“Disney still separately holds a trademark on Mickey Mouse as a brand identifier and a corporate mascot. That means there are still limits on how the public can use these images. What I cannot do is start making merchandise and the same kinds of products that Disney sells.”
One must point out that this is not the only film featuring the characters Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse to have entered the public domain, not technically anyway. Before Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks directed a silent film called Plane Crazy in 1928 which marked the first appearance of the character Mickey and his girlfriend Minnie. Plane Crazy was later released as a sound cartoon in 1929. The silent version of this film entered the public domain this year along with the Steamboat Willie version and the sound version of the film will remain copyrighted until next year in January 2025.
Possible Iterations of Steamboat Willie
On January 1, 2022 Winnie the Pooh, another one of Disney’s famous characters entered public domain and much to Disney’s dismay, a low-budget horror film entitled, ‘Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey’ was soon released in theatres and received considerable attention. The character of Winnie The Pooh or Pooh the Bear was actually created by English author AA Milne along with illustrator EH Shepard. In 1961, the Walt Disney Company licensed certain film and other rights of Winnie The Pooh stories from the estate of AA Milne and turned it into an extremely profitable franchise.
Within months of the character entering public domain, the trailer for horror flick “Winnie The Pooh; Blood & Honey” was out in August the same year. Surely enough, in similar fashion, two separate trailers of movies based on the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey have already been released. These movies presumably feature re-interpreted versions of Mickey Mouse. If pictures online are to be believed, one is a horror movie and features a scary looking version of Mickey Mouse!
What is also significant is that Disney already filed a copyright claim against YouTuber and voice actor Brock Baker who uploaded the original animated short film Steamboat Willie and remixed his own comedic audio track playing over the cartoon. Baker, who has over a million subscribers on YouTube, uploaded the video under the name ‘Steamboat Willie’ (Brock’s dub). As soon as he was hit by Disney’s claim, the upload was demonetised immediately and the claim also prevented him from uploading the video on third party websites. However, in a surprising move, after considering the validity of Baker’s case, Disney decided to withdraw the claim. Baker received the following email from YouTube: “Good News! After reviewing your dispute Disney has decided to release their copyright claim on your YouTube video.” As a result of this, the video is now monetizable and can be viewed worldwide.
While this is a significant step on Disney’s part, it is also surprising because the studio has enjoyed a very different reputation as far as protecting it’s intellectual property is concerned. In December last year, the New York Times reported that Disney once forced a day care centre in the State of Florida to remove a mural of Minnie Mouse as it was unauthorized. Even once telling a stonemason that carving Winnie The Pooh into a child’s gravestone would ‘violate it’s copyright’.
As far as other possible future iterations of the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse are concerned, we must also understand that the version that has entered the public domain is a black and white version and is very different from the present day iterations of Mickey and Minnie that we see today. Moreover, Disney continues to retain the rights to newer versions of these works making it more difficult for someone to author works that are iterations of the Steamboat Willie version but are entirely different from Disney’s characters.
Author: Nitish Kashyap