Disney is About to Lose Rights to 1928’s ‘Steamboat Willie’ Version of Mickey Mouse

Steamboat Willie, lobbycard, Mickey Mouse, 1928
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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.

American animator and producer Walt Disney with one of his creations Mickey Mouse

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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.”

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 23: Mickey Mouse Steamboat Willie figure is part of the exhibition Walt Disney's "Mexico and Walt Disney: A Magical Encounter" and "The Art of Coco" at Cineteca Nacional on October 23, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. This exhibition includes pieces and unique works and shows the histotic period from 1937 to 1966 exposing the career and influence of Mexico in Walt Disney

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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.

(Original Caption) Walt Disney, creator of the world-famous Mickey Mouse, is pictured with Mrs. Disney--who helped him invent his famous cartoon character--as they arrived at London, England recently, on a honeymoon that has been delayed for eight weeks. A stuffed Mickey Mouse is shown with the couple.

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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.

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August 2021

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