Hey, it’s Brian. This article is for informational purposes and is NOT legal advice, cool? Onto the article…
It’s hard to believe. But the modern-day Walt Disney Company, with its theme parks around the world, multiple billion-dollar movie franchises like Marvel and Star Wars, animation studios, streaming channels, TV networks, and any number of other divisions, all started with a simple black-and-white cartoon.
It’s called Steamboat Willie, and it features an early version of Mickey Mouse piloting an old-time steamboat down a river while trying to entertain his gal Minnie… as the villain Pete tries to toss Mickey into the water. Simple plot. Just eight minutes long.
Steamboat Willie came out in 1928 and was revolutionary for its time because it was the first animated film to be shown with synchronized sound – the sound effects, music, and other audio matched up with the action on the screen. Other animations had been silent, with accompanying music and such from live performers.
This short movie established Disney as the pre-eminent animation studio and set the stage for all the success that was to come.
It’s no surprise that the Disney company has quite a soft spot for Steamboat Willie.
But they have a problem…
The copyright for that version of Mickey Mouse expired at the end of 2023, and the character is in the public domain. To be clear, it’s only this Steamboat Willie version of Mickey that falls out of copyright. The Mickey you know best, with red shorts, white gloves, and the high-pitched voice is still very much protected.
Still, Disney has its concerns because anyone can now create their own stories, movies, artwork, and other works with that version of Mickey. And they can pretty much do whatever they want.
We’ve seen this before, with Disney involved in that case too. In 2022, the 1926 children’s book, “Winnie-the-Pooh,” entered the public domain. Again, this isn’t the chubby yellow bear with a red shirt that you know from the popular Disney cartoons, plush toys, and the like. This is the original character from A.A. Milne’s book.
However, that was enough for a filmmaker to create the slasher/horror movie: Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey. This was allowed because the film did not use any elements from more recent versions of the character. If their Pooh Bear had been wearing a red shirt or used words and phrases from the classic cartoon that would have been a different story.
But could someone do the same with Mickey? Update: Yes, they have.
Disney does have an ace up its sleeve, so to speak. They also have the trademark for Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie. And unlike, copyrights, which cover a specific creation from being used for 95 years, a trademark can last effectively forever… or at least as long as the owner files the proper paperwork and maintains their brand.
These are two distinct ways to protect intellectual property (the other main one being patent, which protects inventions). And there are different laws covering each. As the United States Patent and Trademark Office puts it:
A copyright protects “artistic, literary, or intellectually created works, such as novels, music, movies, software code, photographs, and paintings that are original and exist in a tangible medium, such as paper, canvas, film, or digital format.”
A trademark protects “a word, phrase, design, or a combination that identifies your goods or services, distinguishes them from the goods or services of others, and indicates the source of your goods or services.”
To give you further context, a trademark essentially protects your brand – in connection with particular goods and services. In this case, Disney’s name and logo are protected by trademark.
But a copyright covers specific works, like a Disney movie – and the music, images, dialogue, and characters in it. Even when a creation is covered by copyright, the concept of “fair use” does allow others to incorporate that creation in their works under limited circumstances, such as satire and for educational purposes.
See this article on fair use for creators for more info on fair use.
(Just for fun… a patent would cover innovative technology Pixar, which is part of Disney, uses to make their magical movies. Their breakthrough came with the Pixar Image Computer, which allowed them to create 3D images and kicked off their revolutionary animation work.)
Why Mickey Isn’t Completely Fair Game
While Mickey Mouse is technically going into the public domain, Disney is not too worried.
It’s important to note that the character of Steamboat Willie is very much associated with Disney, even in the present day. It’s not just a piece of company history that has been forgotten.
They have a ton of merchandise, and, most importantly, it’s been part of the animation studio’s logo since 2007 and shown before every Disney animated movie up to today. And, of course, Mickey Mouse, no matter what form the character takes, is the company mascot and symbol.
All this means that, while the character may technically be in the public domain, it is associated closely with Disney. And if Steamboat Willie appears in content the average consumer could potentially think it has Disney’s permission.
Disney’s legal team has already said they will take action against any “consumer confusion” that results from use of this version of Mickey. And you can bet they will if they see anybody capitalizing financially on the character or creating works that they find distasteful – and that could harm their brand.
The key here is that the version of Mickey in Steamboat Willie is very different from the later iterations, which are still covered by copyright. Violations will be easy to catch.
Of course, Disney isn’t the only company grappling with this issue. Sherlock Holmes has long been in the public domain. The characters, or at least the earliest versions, of Batman, Superman, and… Donald Duck – will also eventually go into the public domain in the years 2035, 2034, and 2029, respectively.
What happens with Steamboat Willie Mickey is seen by many in the industry as a test case. How Disney reacts to other creators using its mascot in their own works will guide what other media companies do with their own characters and stories.