Mickey Mouse is arguably the most famous cartoon character on earth. One survey even showed the iconic personality to edge out Santa Claus in recognition among children. In political and animation circles, it is often remarked that Mickey Mouse will fall into the public domain in 2024 if copyright term lengths are not extended before then. If Mickey’s copyright expires, this would allow the public to use the character, or at least the 1928 version, without permission from the Walt Disney Company.
What if, however, the two-buttoned cartoon rodent has already fallen into the public domain? And what if Disney lawyers are working overtime to keep the public from taking advantage? Some legal scholars think this is the case. And even if Mickey Mouse himself is not in the public domain, there is enormous support for the idea that the Mickey Mouse film that first created his lasting fame, Steamboat Willie, is in the public domain.
Steamboat Willie was the film that put the nascent Disney empire on the map. It was the first commercially successful cartoon to synchronize sound and action, a technologically tedious task, especially given that, at the time of its release in November 1928, even live action “talkies” were a novelty.
Longtime Disney employee Gregory Brown had long marveled at the accomplishments of his employer. When working as an archivist, however, he discovered that Walt Disney, in his early days, was not rigorous with his copyrights. The copyright to Steamboat Willie was a particularly glaring example. There are two problems. First, the film’s title card simply says “copyright” followed by the year. It does not specifically state who or what entity is copyrighting the film. Second, the copyright year is 1929, a full year after its 1928 release. While U.S. copyright law today is more relaxed, it was demanding and strictly construed in the 1920s.
The Copyright Act of 1909 required that copyrights be clear of uncertainty, and film studios in the Golden Age of Hollywood frequently lost rights to films based upon minute technical deviations from the statute’s standards. A title card that does not list the copyright holder, and states the incorrect year, would seem to be uncertain under the Copyright Act of 1909.
Mickey Mouse himself could likewise be in the public domain, though the case is less clear. Steamboat Willie was the second Mickey Mouse film to be copyrighted, after Mickey Mouse in Plane Crazy. This first film was based upon Disney’s original doodles of the mouse, arguably making both Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy derivative works. Thus, if Disney never published the original doodles, Mickey Mouse might still be under a quasi-copyright. If, however, if the drawings were published without securing a copyright, the Mouse would follow his most famous film into the world of the public domain.
Brown’s observations were later amplified by law students convinced by his arguments. One was sued by Disney for defamation, though the suit was dropped. It is a near-consensus among legal experts that, at the very least, Steamboat Willie is in the public domain. However, no large-scale legal challenges have emerged.
Disney’s legal guardians remain protective over both Mickey Mouse and Steamboat Willie, regardless of their legal claim of ownership. If Mickey Mouse was found to be public domain, most expect that Disney would attempt to prevent reproduction of the character through trademark law, which can prevent visual reproductions that may be confused with productions by Disney. It is difficult to imagine how content creators would take advantage of the Mouse’s public domain status in the face of Disney’s legal resources. Even a public domain Mickey Mouse may not escape the grasp of the Disney juggernaut.
Timothy B. Lee – Jan 1, 2019 5:10 pm UTC. “Mickey Mouse Will Be Public Domain Soon-Here’s What That Means.” Ars Technica, January 1, 2019. https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/01/a-whole-years-worth-of-works-just-fell-into-the-public-domain/.
“Whose Mouse Is It Anyway?” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2008. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-aug-22-fi-mickey22-story.html.
Vanpelt, Lauren. (Spring 1999). “Mickey Mouse — A Truly Public Character”. Arizona State University College of Law. Retrieved October 16, 2021.