Disney is About to Lose Rights to 1928’s ‘Steamboat Willie’ Version of Mickey Mouse
It isn’t Disney without Mickey Mouse. The beloved mouse first debuted in the short film Steamboat Willie 100 years ago on November 18, 1928. Now, Disney is about to lose its copyright on that version of Mickey in just a few months. What does that actually mean? Will Disney lose exclusive rights to Mickey forever?
The original version of Mickey Mouse as seen in Steamboat Willie will enter the public domain after its copyright runs out on January 1, 2024. This isn’t the first time this situation has come up. In 1928, U.S. copyright laws allowed for the copyright of intellectual property to last 28 years and the ability to extend that another 28 years. In the ’80s, Disney approached their eventual expiration date and they lobbied Congress to change the copyright laws. Congress ended up altering the law, known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” and Steamboat Willie‘s character was safe until 2024.
As of now, there is no evidence to suggest that Disney has tried to save this version of Mickey or extend the copyright. Even so, it seems that Disney would still attempt to continue to copyright such a historical part of its history but there are no guarantees that lawmakers would grant the company any more extensions. When the copyright expires, if nothing is done, that means other companies and people can use the likeness without issue and one company is already taking advantage.
An American art collective enterprise called MSCHF has already created a “token” featuring an image that looks very close to Steamboat Willie‘s Mickey but has just enough changes to avoid any copyright issues until it expires. MSCHF CCO, Kevin Wiesner explains, “Mickey is the first classic Disney character that’s set to enter the public domain (specifically the Steamboat Willie incarnation). Disney is notoriously litigious, so they’re the perfect target for this kind of copyright loophole shenanigans.”
The whole situation is pretty unclear right now, but if nothing changes anyone can use Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie and avoid any copyright lawsuits from Disney. Which begs the question, how did this version of Mickey come to fruition? Many associate Walt Disney with his creation but many don’t realize that a man named Ub Iwerks was the one to draw the cartoon character. Prior, Walt Disney had contracted a man named Charles Mintz to create a character. He came up with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, his contract wasn’t so strict and he ended up stealing the character and bringing him over to Disney’s competition Universal, and bringing many of Disney’s animators along with them.
One who stayed with Disney was Iwerks. Disney had the idea for a mouse named Mortimer but his wife Lillian said that the name was “too depressing” and suggested the name Mickey instead. He worked with Iwerks to create Steamboat Willie and saved the company. Each year, Mickey celebrates his birthday on November 18, but this year may be his last celebration exclusively at Disney.