- Mickey Mouse from the Steamboat Willie version has entered the public domain as of January 1st, 2024.
- Steamboat Willie is a 1928 film short that introduced Mickey and Minnie Mouse and was highly acclaimed for its technical innovation.
- Disney lobbied to extend the copyright protection for Steamboat Willie multiple times, but it expired in 2023.
Mickey Mouse, or rather the popular Disney icon of animation from Steamboat Willie, has officially entered the public domain, unleashing a wave of creativity in horror films, video games, and hilarious digital art.
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On January 1st 2024, Disney said goodbye to their iconic character, at least the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse from 1928. After the copyright expired, the media company was forced to part ways with this older character version and automatically became part of the public domain in the United States and a few other countries.
The History of Steamboat Willie
Steamboat Willie is a 1928 film short developed by Disney along with cartoonist Ub Iwerks, who worked on the design of the original version of Mickey Mouse. The cartoon is the debut of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and one of the first synchronised sound cartoons. Steamboat Willie was the most popular cartoon of its day and paved the way for Disney’s wild success in the coming decades. Naturally, the company went to great lengths to protect its image and business interests, securing an almost hundred-year copyright claim on Steamboat Willie’s Mickey Mouse.
The cartoon was widely praised and garnered critical acclaim for its technical innovation and is seen as one of the most outstanding animated features in history. Initially, Disney’s copyright claim was supposed to end in 1984. Still, as The Guardian reports, Disney lobbied to change US copyright laws to cover the “life of the author plus 50 years,” which protected Willie until 2003.
In 1998, Disney (along with several entertainment companies, including Universal) successfully lobbied to have copyright protection extended again to the “life of the author plus 70 years” or 95 years after publication, whichever ends earlier. This extension to the copyright act protected Willie until the end of 2023 and was mockingly dubbed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.
Steamboat Willie in the Public Domain
The January 1st release of Steamboat Willie Mickey into the public domain was coupled with a flood of tweets, trailers, NFT and remixes into dubstep, to name a few of the ingenious ways people have been using the character for their projects and creative flirtations. Within hours of entering the public domain, a trailer for a horror film called Mickey’s Mouse Trap was released, which features a killer in a Steamboat Mickey mask hunting down a group of youngsters in an arcade.
Video game developer Nightmare Forge also added their two cents by releasing a trailer for Infestation 88, an episodic 1-4 player co-op survival horror game based on the characters from Steamboat Willie. The Guardian also mentioned that game developer Fumi released a trailer two weeks ago for a noirish “jazz-filled shooter” called Mouse, in which you play a Steamboat Willie-like gangster mouse.
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Mickey Mouse Knock-Offs Are Everywhere
With Steamboat Mickey now officially in the public domain, the IP will be subject to many games, movies, memes and other broader content. How Disney will navigate this new landscape will be interesting to see. We’ve all known about the news for a few years already, maybe even a decade ago. As such, we’ve all suspected plenty to come almost as soon as it became available at the turn of the new year.
Disney still retains the copyright for the later versions of Mickey, with even the public domain version subject to certain checks and balances regarding how the public chooses to utilise Mickey’s image. Nevertheless, Disney must be pretty annoyed that their most iconic character has fled the mouse house for the dangers of the internet.
As we saw with the likes of Winnie the Pooh that fell into the public domain a few years ago, most notably with the slasher film Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey. Key details from this depiction highlighted some of the basic requirements, such as a change of colour on his T-shirt and a few other character features in order to allow it to pass interrogation.
Interesting Side Note: Tigger from Winnie-the-Pooh has also entered the public domain alongside Steamboat Mickey, as well as the lesser-known version of Mickey from The Gallopin’ Gaucho of the same year.
What we saw on just the first day was a plethora of content to enjoy and celebrate. This is just a small subset of an ever-growing list of since Mickey Mouse has become public domain:
We all know that Disney takes its IP very seriously. As such, they’ll be closely monitoring all the content created using the Steamboat version of Mickey Mouse to ensure that no one is in breach of what can be utilized. The company is famous for pushing extremely hard against those in breach, having previously sued a day-care centre for a mural on its walls, as well as warning a funeral parlour of a possible lawsuit if they use a depiction of Winnie the Pooh on a headstone on a gravesite.
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Upcoming Content to Enter Public Domain
With all the fuss around the Steamboat Mickey Mouse entering the public domain, we did a bit of digging to highlight other IPs that will also be available over the next decade or so. The list is quite intriguing, to say the least, with a lot of potential.
- 2025 – “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway
- 2026 – “Frankenstein” (1931 film)
- 2026 – “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett
- 2026 – “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1931 film)
- 2026 – “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie
- 2026 – “A Death in the Family” by James Agee
- 2026 – The paintings of Yves Tanguy
- 2027 – “Conan the Barbarian” by Robert E. Howard
- 2028 – “King Kong” (1933 film)
- 2028 – “Little House on the Prairie” by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- 2029 – “Flash Gordon” (1934 comic) by Alex Raymond
- 2029 – Donald Duck in “The Wise Little Hen” (1934 animation) by Walt Disney
- 2034 – Superman (1938 comic book) by DC Comics
- 2035 – Batman (1939 comic book) by DC Comics
- 2037 – Wonder Woman (1941 comic book) by DC Comics
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What are your thoughts on Steamboat Mickey and his proliferation on the internet and in video games?