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Disney’s Iconic ‘Steamboat Willie’ Mickey Mouse Enters Public Domain After Nearly 100 Years

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The earliest known version of Disney’s beloved Mickey Mouse, featured in the 1928 short film “Steamboat Willie,” has officially entered the public domain as of January 1. This milestone comes almost a century after the iconic character first graced the silver screen and marks the expiration of Disney’s copyright protection on the classic character.

Under U.S. copyright law, a copyright can be held for a maximum of 95 years before it becomes part of the public domain. The copyright protection on Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse concluded at the stroke of midnight on December 31, signaling a new era for creators and enthusiasts alike.

The Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse is notably different from the contemporary version, described by the Associated Press as “more mischievous” and “rat-like.” Rooted in the blackface minstrel shows of its time, this early rendition of Mickey is characterized as “rascally and rough,” spending his time transforming unwilling barnyard animals into musical instruments.

While Disney had long fought to prevent the expiration of Mickey’s copyright, the day has finally arrived. In 1998, Disney, along with other entities, successfully lobbied Congress to extend copyright protection, leading to what humorously became known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” extending copyright terms to 70 years for corporate-owned works like Disney’s.

So, what does the public domain status mean for Steamboat Willie? According to legal experts like Jennifer Jenkins, a law professor and director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School, almost anything is fair game. Creators are now free to copy, share, and build upon the original Mickey Mouse character as seen in Steamboat Willie. Story elements from the film are also open for adaptation, remixing, and sharing.

However, it’s crucial to note that Disney still holds a trademark on Mickey Mouse, preventing the unauthorized use of the character in ways that may mislead people into thinking it was created or endorsed by the company. Unlike copyrights, trademarks do not expire under U.S. law.

While the Steamboat Willie version is now open for creative exploration, newer iterations of Mickey Mouse from more recent films like Fantasia (1940) or Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (2006) remain under copyright protection until those copyrights expire.

The expiration of Steamboat Willie’s copyright adds Mickey Mouse to the list of beloved characters that have entered the public domain in recent years. Notable characters like Dracula, Frankenstein, Robin Hood, Snow White, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, and Winnie the Pooh have all seen their copyright protections expire.

In response to this development, Disney affirmed its commitment to protecting its rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright. The company assured that Mickey will continue to play a leading role in Disney’s storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise.

The public domain status has already spurred creative endeavors, with the release of trailers for unconventional films like “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” and “Mickey’s Mouse Trap,” a horror-comedy featuring a sinister Mickey Mouse. As Mickey embarks on this new phase of accessibility, the possibilities for creative reinterpretations and adaptations are boundless.

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