For the first time, one of The Walt Disney Co.’s marquee characters — Mickey himself — is set to enter the public domain. “Steamboat Willie,” the 1928 short film that introduced Mickey to the world, will lose copyright protection in the United States and a few other countries at the end of this year, prompting fans, copyright experts and potential Mickey grabbers to wonder: How is the notoriously litigious Disney going to respond?
The matter is more complicated than it appears, and those who try to capitalize on the expiring “Steamboat Willie” copyright could easily end up in a legal mousetrap.
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 ratlike nose, rudimentary eyes (no pupils) and a long tail.
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.
“Disney has regularly modernized the character, not necessarily as a program of copyright management, at least initially, but to keep up with the times,” said Jane C. Ginsburg, an authority on intellectual property law who teaches at Columbia University.
The expiration of the “Steamboat Willie” copyright means that the black-and-white short can be shown without Disney’s permission and even resold by third parties. (There may not be much sales value left, however. Disney posted it for free on YouTube years ago.) It also means that anyone can make use of the film and the original Mickey to further expression — to create new stories and artwork.
Of course, it does get tricky: Disney also holds trademarks on its characters, including the “Steamboat Willie” version of Mickey Mouse, and trademarks never expire as long as companies keep submitting the proper paperwork. A copyright covers a specific creation (unauthorized copying), but trademarks are designed to protect against consumer confusion — to provide consumers assurance about the source and quality of a creation.
Boiled down, any public domain use of the original Mickey cannot be perceived as coming from Disney, Ginsburg explained. This protection is strong, she added, because the character, even in his early form, has such close association with the company.