Mickey Mouse is one of the most recognizable characters in all of media. Created by Walt Disney, an American entrepreneur who really disliked unions, and a team of animators behind 1928’s short film “Steamboat Willie,” the mouse has evolved into a corporate mascot appearing on countless television shows, animated shorts, lunch boxes, and the occasional video game. But after nearly 100 years locked away in the Disney vault, a version of the chipper rodent with overalls, white gloves, and circular ears has finally broken free of its copyright and made it into the public domain.
That first iteration of Mickey, where he whistled and used a screaming mother pig as a musical instrument (as well as a silent version from the short Plane Crazy and an early Minnie Mouse), can now be used by anyone to adapt or exploit in any way they seem fit.
Not every version of the mouse is fair game, only those from the earliest adaptations of Steamboat Willie are free to use. Disney still owns the current copyright and trademark of newer versions of Mickey Mouse, with a Disney spokesperson telling Deadline that the company will “continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse.”
The content floodgates have already opened just a couple of days into the new year. Across social media, you can find Mickey shooting a gun, supporting unions, being sold as NFTs, and just flipping people off. These are all creators who have had their lives impacted by Mickey but could never share these works of art without fear of Disney’s large legal retainer.
“Mickey Mouse is a character that I have an inseparable connection to,” Pinky told Passionfruit. “Nobody should ever have to feel guilt or regret for being swept away by earnest works of art and human expression. It’s Disney, the corporation, that has poisoned that well. Turned Mickey Mouse into the representation of something he was never meant to be.”
Something Mousey This Way Comes
Internet memes are far from the only media being made in a post-Steamboat world, with two horror movies and a video game already announced. Mickey’s Mouse Trap, created by JD Baily Productions, is your traditional slasher fare that seems to be mostly shot, with the trailer already being viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
The other unnamed horror film comes from Steven LaMorte, who had most recently directed “The Mean One,” which is a gruesome take on the Grinch. Morte told Passionfruit that he began work on his new Mickey Mouse project “once the character came into the public domain” and plans to “stick to the original version of Steamboat Willie and not deviate too far from the source material” to avoid any legal issues.
“I think children’s stories make for great opportunities for horror films because the audience already has a relationship with these characters,” LaMorte said. “But maybe as they grow older, or their taste change, they might not be as connected to the characters they loved his kids. We get to re-introduce them to an audience that is already familiar with the character and maybe remind them what it was that they loved about these characters in the first place.”
Finally, there’s “Infestation Origins,” a horror survival game where players exterminate spectral phenomena, including one based on Steamboat Willie, which developer Nightmare Forge Games said in a statement to Passionfruit “fits perfectly as an antagonist causing an infestation.”
(When the game was announced on Monday, the game was called “Infestation 88,” and some online believed that the game contained Neo-Nazi dog whistles as the number 88 has ties to being a hate symbol. Nightmare Forge Games quickly changed the name, saying in a follow-up statement to Passionfruit that they “were unaware of any additional meanings the number ’88’ has” and that they “apologize for our ignorance on this topic and appreciate that it was brought to our attention so we could address it.”)
Steamboat Willie was originally supposed to enter the public domain in 1984, but with Disney’s lobbying help, Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976, extending Disney’s hold over the mouse until 2003. Disney lobbied again, contributing to the creation of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which allowed corporate authorship to last 95 years from the work’s original publication or 120 years from the creation. These laws have essentially shaped our modern media landscape, where characters and universes are hoarded by companies as fuel for their profits.
“Disney’s lobbying in the 80s and 90s irreparably hurt copyright and public domain law,” Pinky said. “In the time since, so many stories and works of art could have been made, not just about Mickey Mouse, but the many other characters that are only now getting their freedom.”
But it begs the question, why did Disney finally let its copyright expire? This is a company that holds such a strong grip over its intellectual property that in 1989, it threatened to sue three daycares in Florida that had murals of their characters, and in 2019, refused to let Spider-Man appear on a child’s tombstone.
Disney is no longer just an animation studio headed by Walt, but rather a bloated corporate icon with dozens of acquisitions worth over $114 billion. Though Mickey Mouse is still fairly popular, video game characters and YouTubers have chipped away at his chokehold on Generation Z. These days, the mouse has a show on Disney+, appears on some merchandise, and is a regular sight at theme parks, meaning he has way less visibility than he did even just 40 years ago.
Steamboat Willie is just a small part of the Disney empire and it doesn’t make sense for the company to defend it tooth and nail. They can just slap a Marvel or Star Wars character on that lunch box instead of the mouse.
“The people that made Steamboat Willie, or Snow White, or Mickey and the Beanstalk, or Emporer’s New Groove have been long since dead or let go from the company, a shell of its former self,” Pinky said. “It does not matter if the property never even had roots in the company’s history, when Disney decides they’re part of that family, they’re rarely allowed to leave.”