On New Year’s Day, a significant milestone was reached in the world of copyright law, as the iconic 1928 animated short film “Steamboat Willie,” featuring the first appearance of Mickey Mouse, entered the public domain.
The move has reignited discussions about the duration of copyright protection and its implications for creative works.
“Steamboat Willie,” directed by Walt Disney and his partner Ub Iwerks, marked the beginning of a cultural phenomenon.
The film introduced audiences to a non-speaking Mickey and Minnie Mouse and played a pivotal role in transforming Disney’s fortunes.
Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of law and director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, described the event as “exciting” and “symbolic.”
However, the Mickey Mouse portrayed in “Steamboat Willie” is not today’s familiar, friendly character.
This early iteration of Mickey, piloting a steamboat, exhibits a more menacing demeanour and is partly modelled on the iconic Charlie Chaplin. The character’s mischievous antics include creating musical instruments out of other animals.
Adding to the historical context, the film features Mickey whistling the 1910 tune “Steamboat Bill,” which inspired the title of Buster Keaton’s film “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” released a few months prior. Interestingly, the copyright of Keaton’s film expired in 1956, placing it in the public domain.
“Steamboat Willie” was the third cartoon featuring Mickey and Minnie that Disney and Iwerks created, but it was the first to be released.
Its success paved the way for Disney to venture into feature films, leading to the production of the groundbreaking “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937.
The production of “Snow White” was not without challenges, going 400% over budget and requiring the efforts of over 300 animators, artists, and assistants.
Despite these obstacles, the film became a smash hit, setting the stage for the Walt Disney Company to produce numerous acclaimed films in the years that followed.
The copyright law in the United States allowed for a 95-year protection period, and due to various extensions, Disney managed to maintain its copyright on the original cartoons, with an expected expiration in 1984.
However, Congress extended the term by 20 years, preventing the works from entering the public domain. Another 20-year extension followed in 2004, delaying the expiration once again.
Dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” somewhat derisively, these extensions were not exclusive to Disney but benefited a broader group of copyright holders.
The extensions protected various works from entering the public domain, providing an additional 20 years of copyright protection.
While the public domain status of “Steamboat Willie” now allows artists and creators to use the early version of Mickey Mouse, there are limitations. Disney emphasized that only the rat-like, non-speaking boat captain depicted in the film has become public domain. The more modern iterations of Mickey, widely recognized today, remain protected by copyright.
In response to the expiration of the copyright, a Disney spokesperson stated, “More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company.”
Notably, Disney still holds a trademark on Mickey Mouse, prohibiting the unauthorized use of the character in a way that could confuse consumers into thinking a product is from the original creator. Mickey remains a vital brand identifier and corporate mascot for Disney.
Disney also issued a warning in their statement, pledging to “safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters.”
Mickey Mouse joined another childhood favourite, Winnie the Pooh, which transitioned into the public domain two years ago. This development led to the creation of the horror film “Winnie The Pooh: Blood and Honey.”
Additionally, Disney has relinquished its copyright on Winnie’s cherished sidekick, Tigger, who made his debut in the book “The House at Pooh Corner” 96 years ago.
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