OAN’s Elizabeth Volberding
3:40 PM – Tuesday, January 2, 2024
The debut version of Mickey Mouse from the 1928 short film Steamboat Willie, a character who has been associated with the Walt Disney company for almost a century, is no longer exclusively owned by the company.
On Monday, the press announced that the character Mickey Mouse is no longer owned solely by the Walt Disney Company after the likeness became fair game to use on January 1st, 2024, entering the public domain.
The good-natured rodent, who has been one of the most well-known faces of the Disney brand for almost a century, has developed into one of the most iconic characters in United States pop culture.
However, due to a U.S. copyright law that enables a copyright to be held for 95 years, Disney’s sole ownership of Mickey Mouse has officially come to an end.
“More modern versions of Mickey will remain unaffected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright, and Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney Company in our storytelling, theme park attractions, and merchandise,” a Disney spokesperson said.
The Mickey Mouse from 1928 and the current mascot of the company are not the same.
The Mickey Mouse of Steamboat Willie has small, pupil-less black eyes rather than the modern Mickey’s oversized shoes and gloves.
A Harvard Law School professor, Rebecca Tushnet, made a statement about the situation, claiming that while Steamboat Willie can be redefined in any way due to public domain laws, certain elements of the more contemporary Mickey Mouse cannot be replicated. Disney retains trademark ownership over those versions.
“Whatever you do, to be protected against copyright infringement claims … you really have to be making new stuff and be sure you are basing it on Steamboat Willie,” Tushnet said.
Tushnet also stated that although Disney is forced to “grudgingly concede” its hold on the reputation of Steamboat Willie, the company will most likely sue anyone who recreates any new version of the character if it even closely resembles Mickey Mouse.
The Harvard professor forecasted that one platform the character might be recreated on is Etsy, an online selling website. However, she said that one simple mistake may open a can of worms for small businesses and artists on Etsy due to possibility of lawsuits from Disney.
“Unfortunately, those people are precisely the kind of people who are unlikely to have the resources to actually figure out the legal boundaries,” Tushnet stated.
However, Disney’s close grip on the iconic character may hold some exceptions. Even the more contemporary rendition of Mickey Mouse can be exhibited for purposes of education, satire, or parody.
“Disney will continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright, and we will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters,” a Disney spokesperson told the press.
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