After almost 100 years under the complete control of The Walt Disney Company, Mickey Mouse is about to go public.
What You Need To Know
- The copyright on the 1928 movie “Steamboat Willie” – the short film that introduced the world to Mickey Mouse – will expire in 2024
- Intellectual property attorney says “there are some limitations” on what people can do with the Steamboat-Willie-version of Mickey Mouse
- What happens with Mickey Mouse will serve as a beta test for future copyright expirations
The copyright on the 1928 movie “Steamboat Willie” – the short film that introduced the world to Mickey Mouse – will expire in 2024. That means the Steamboat-Willie-version of Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain.
“That means everybody in the public has the ability to use that creation for their own interpretations, their own versions,” said Erica Allen, an intellectual property attorney in Tampa Bay with DiAngelo Law.
To be clear, it’s only the version of Mickey Mouse from “Steamboat Willie” that anyone in the public can use without permission to create new stories and new art. That Mickey Mouse has a long rat-like black nose, basic oval eyes with no pupils and a long, spindly, curvy black tail. Any future iterations of Mickey Mouse – including any showing Mickey Mouse in color – are still under Disney’s control.
But the copyright on the Steamboat-Willie-version will run out in 2024 after 95 years. Initially, copyrights only lasted 28 years. But, due in large part to Disney’s lobbying and legal efforts, copyrights were first extended to 75 years, then later to 95 years. Yet now that 95-year protection is about to run out on “Steamboat Willie.”
But, as Allen noted during her interview with Spectrum Bay News 9, “there are some limitations” on what people can do with the Steamboat-Willie-version of Mickey Mouse.
For example, Disney will no longer hold the copyright on that version of Mickey Mouse, but they will still hold the trademark on Mickey Mouse. That offers Disney protection against ‘consumer confusion.’
“We don’t want consumers to confuse the source of a creation or a work,” Allen said, noting that any story or art created using Mickey Mouse still cannot be perceived as coming from Disney. “You couldn’t do it to a point where consumers would actually think it was Disney doing it.”
There is an interesting, recent example that demonstrates this point.
Two years ago, A.A. Milne’s 1926 book “Winnie-The-Pooh” entered the public domain. Using only the Pooh imagined in Milne’s book, a filmmaker made a slasher movie with Winnie-The-Pooh and Piglet as the movie’s murderous villains. The filmmaker called his movie “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.”
That movie probably does not violate any trademarks because it is very unlikely anyone would assume the original creators of Winnie-the-Pooh would have created a slasher film pitting Pooh against Christopher Robin.
Still, Allen believes Disney lawyers will use every avenue available to them to protect their legendary character, even if the copyright on the Steamboat Willie-version is expiring.
“I think anyone who tests the boundaries will either end up settling with Disney or wind up in a lawsuit,” Allen said.
What happens with Mickey Mouse will also serve as a beta test for future copyright expirations. Versions of Disney characters Pluto and Donald Duck will enter the public domain soon after the first version of Mickey Mouse.