Oh, the woes of being a well-established company. The Disney100 celebration has hit the streets early with merchandise and a traveling exhibition, but the anniversary isn’t all bells and whistles. A little-discussed aspect of the big anniversary year’s end will have enormous implications for one of the first iterations of Disney’s staple, Mickey Mouse. The Disney100 celebration also brushes calendar shoulders with the 95th birthday of the Disney character Steamboat Willie. Under US Copyright Law for works published or registered before 1978, Disney will no longer own the rights to the character, and the work will become public domain.
Steamboat Willie was unveiled in a Walt Disney Animation Studios short on November 18th, 1928., which means that by January 1st, 2024, the character will lose its copyright protection in the United States and other countries around the world. However, the use of Mickey Mouse by members of the public is a bit more of a sticky subject. Mickey has been presented in multiple iterations and character titles, making the general likeness of Mr. Mouse still covered in more ways than one.
The New York Times described the predicament eloquently earlier in the week:
Only one copyright is expiring. It covers the original version of Mickey Mouse as seen in “Steamboat Willie,” an eight-minute short with little plot. This nonspeaking Mickey has a rat-like nose, rudimentary eyes (no pupils) and a long tail. He can be naughty. In one “Steamboat Willie” scene, he torments a cat. In another, he uses a terrified goose as a trombone.
Later versions of the character remain protected by copyrights, including the sweeter, rounder Mickey with red shorts and white gloves most familiar to audiences today. They will enter the public domain at different points over the coming decades.New York Times
The question of Public Domain looms over Disney in the years to come as more of the closely-guarded Disney Characters will enter the status. Some characters synonymous with the Walt Disney Company are already marked as public domain, like A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, and characters like The Little Mermaid and Cinderella created by Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grim, respectively. Though once again, the use of the characters we are familiar with today is often still covered under their copyright protection as they were recreated and enhanced in later years under the Disney umbrella. So what does this mean for the creative works themselves? The University of California describes ‘public domain’ in the following words.
No permission is needed to copy or use public domain works. A work is generally considered to be within the public domain if it is ineligible for copyright protection or its copyright has expired.
Public domain works can serve as the foundation for new creative works and can be quoted extensively. They can also be copied and distributed to classes or placed on course web pages without permission or paying royalties.University of California
How strictly Disney will attempt to enforce the legalities surrounding Steamboat Willie will have to wait to be seen over the next year as the Walt Disney Company gears up to tackle the issue of Public Domain over the next year.
Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.
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