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Mickey Mouse and A Disney Disaster: Steamboat Willie Goes Public Domain

Something Mick-ed this way comes as Disney finds itself in a whole world of copyright conundrums. While 2024 is a big year for the House of Mouse thanks to upcoming releases, including Inside Out 2, The Acolyte, Deadpool 3, and more, there’s also a mouse problem when it comes to unofficial releases.

January 1, 2024, marked a milestone for the family-friendly franchise, with it being 95 years since Steamboat Willie made its debut. Following the release of the Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho cartoons, Steamboat Willie was the first to get a theatrical release. After Mickey’s debut in Plane Crazy, Steamboat Willie was a chirpy cartoon caper that introduced him to the wider world and started the Walt Disney Company legacy that’s still going strong today. But while the iconic black-and-white image of Mickey spinning a ship’s wheel has become synonymous with Disney, its time under copyright has come to an end.

Copyrights and copycats

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For those who aren’t quite up to date on their copyright law (we’ll admit we’re no Judge Judy), copyright laws in the US and UK will typically only protect an IP for 95 years after release or 120 years after creation. Steamboat Willie was released in November 1928 and was supposed to enter PD way back in 1984, thanks to the Copyright Act of 1909 only covering 56 years.

Disney has successfully lobbied to have the rights massively extended, with 1998’s “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” being an important piece of legislation. Every time Disney redesigns Mickey, it effectively grants a new copyright, meaning he can technically be kept under House of Mouse arrest forever. Still, that hasn’t stopped the classic Steamboat Willie design from being up for grabs. 

Public Domain properties are a hot commodity for those who can’t afford to pay extortionate sums to license characters. Major IPs like Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, and Robin Hood are all in the public domain, which would explain why the latter two have had so many subpar adaptations on the silver screen. 

The Willie Effect

In the first days of Steamboat Willie going PD, there’s already been an influx of Mickey-inspired outings. On January 1, a trailer landed for Mickey’s Mouse Trap, which follows a murderous mouse mascot stalking a group of kids around an arcade and is presumably trying to cash in on the box office success of 2023’s Five Nights at Freddy’s. There’s currently no distributor, but producers are aiming for a March release. 

A second (unnamed) movie from Steven LaMorte is on the way, and with the director known for parodying the Grinch in The Mean One, expect more of the same. There have been NFTs, gun-toting videos, and even one of Steamboat Mickey sinking the Titanic. Despite movies being the big pull here, video games have seen a similar boom, with the retro-inspired MOUSE looking like a Steamboat Willie shooter.

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Forgetting the idea that someone might confuse MOUSE for an official Disney game, there were bigger problems with Nightmare Forge’s Infestation: Origins. The survival horror was originally called Infestation 88, and with uncomfortable connotations of “rats” and neo-Nazi call signs, the developer was forced to issue a statement and quickly rename the title. This is the thing: if Disney was in control, these projects would likely never get off the starting blocks, let alone be embroiled in rows of anti-Semitism.

From Mickey’s Mouse Trap. A Bailey Phillips Production

We’ve already seen backlash, and as Mashable reports, YouTuber and voice actor Brock Baker shared a full-length dubbed version of Steamboat Willie to their one million-subbed channel and was quickly hit with a takedown from Disney. Baker fought the claim, and 24 hours later, Disney withdrew its case — leaving the content creator once again able to make money from his video. 

“Steamboat Willie (Brock’s Dub)” even opened with a disclaimer explaining how the cartoon is PD and joked, “Please don’t sue.” Similarly, Popeye artist Randy Milholland has released the first issue of his “Moustrapped” webcomic. Besides being careful to avoid naming his clear nods to Mickey Minnie and Peg Leg Pete, Milholland added, “No claims to any active copyrights or trademarks owned by the Walt Disney Company are made.”

A Boatload of Trouble 

Despite Disney’s notorious love of adapting other people’s stories, it’s equally renowned for suing anyone who dares try and rip off its work. The media giant sued comic book artist Dan O’Neill after he drew a lewd act of Mickey performing cunnilingus on Minnie for Air Pirates Funnies. That was a breach of copyright, but with Steamboat Willie Mickey and the short’s version of Minnie out in the aether, there’s nothing now stopping a steamy Steamboat Willie adaptation. 

Others will argue O’Neill was well within his rights as satire is protected. After all, Family Guy has repeatedly mocked Disney through satire, and what about The Simpsons with the fan-favorite Shary Bobbins? We’ve simply shied away from this after Disney (successfully) went after the artist with all its might. While it seems Disney is taking this on the chin for now, a rather pointed statement reiterates those in charge will be watching.

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Mickey pulled in different directions. A glimpse of what’s to come as he enters public domain?

Following “Steamboat Willie” entering PD, Disney said, “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 in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise. We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright.” 

As pointed out by Jennifer Jenkins at the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain,  there are still some caveats. Attempted strikes against Baker and illustrator Jeff Caine’s TeePublic Mickey design seemingly come from the fact you can’t use Mickey in a way that misleads consumers into thinking something comes from Disney itself. A Steamboat Willie horror movie is fine, but call it Disney Presents: Mickey’s Maritime Murder and you’ll be in Disney’s crosshairs. 

Blood, Honey, and Money 

Disney is no stranger to copyright quandaries, as Peter Pan is another outlier. The rights to the boy who never grew up were exclusively gifted to Great Ormond Street Hospital by author J.M. Barrie, but that only applies in the UK. In the US, the stage play adaptation entered Public Domain on January 1, 2024. Peter Pan first appeared in 1902’s The Little White Bird novel and was adapted for the stage in 1904 for Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up

1911’s Peter and Wendy novel is the most famous — adding Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys, and Captain Hook to the mix. But although the Disney movie is still well protected, the characters aren’t. The reason for the delay is that the script for the play wasn’t published until 1928. Norse mythology might be Public Domain, but you can’t go ripping off a hammer-throwing Adonis who looks like Marvel Comics’ Thor until 2058. This explains why Ryan Hurst’s God of Thunder in God of War Ragnarok looks so different. 

As with Mickey’s Mouse Trap, it doesn’t take long for the works to come out of the woodwork. Following Winnie-the-Pooh going PD in 2022, Rhys Frake-Waterfield’s Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey reimagined characters from Hundred Acre Wood as bloodthirsty monsters. It has seemingly birthed a low-budget Disney horror universe and there’s a  sequel in development, as Drake-Waterfield told The Hollywood Reporter when outlining his plans for a crossover universe. This is already underway with Peter Pan’s Neverland Nightmare featuring an obese Tinkerbell, alongside plans for Bambi: The Reckoning with a murderous deer. 

All is not lost for Mickey, as other iconic iterations of him, like Sorceror’s Apprentice Mickey from Fantasia (1940), are still safe for a while longer. Mickey didn’t wear gloves until 1929, but as HuffPost reminds us, an unearthed poster “made in 1928” is fully colorized and looks a lot like the classic Mickey we know. As it’s unclear whether this was simply made in 1928 or actually published, it throws up its own legal minefield we’d probably steer clear of. 

While stories like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the inspiration for The Lion King) are long in the public domain, Mickey Mouse going PD is the first time a Disney-created property has found itself in the hands of others. There’s a sense of irony that a studio that’s made its name off the back of other people’s works is now in danger of being mocked by these same laws. 

Even though most see Public Domain as a wellspring of creativity, it marks the start of a potentially slippery slope for Disney. It’ll be nine years until we can get a Disneyfied Snow White movie similar to Cabin in the Woods, while Disney’s Pinocchio getting a Child’s Play-inspired adaptation can’t happen until 2036. Still, it has us thinking:

In the year 2091, will there be a Toy Story porn parody that sees Woody live up to his name? 



Based in Manchester, UK, Tom Chapman has over seven years’ experience covering everything from dragons to Demogorgons. Starting out with a stint at Movie Pilot in Berlin, Tom has since branched out to indulge his love of all things Star Wars and the MCU at Digital Spy, Den of Geek, IGN, Yahoo! and more. These days, you’ll find Tom channelling his inner Gale Weathers and ranting about how HBO did us dirty with Game of Thrones Season Eight.




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