Three Weeks in and Steamboat Willie Is Already a Slasher Character

Even though the copyright in the earliest version of Mickey Mouse entered the public domain on January 1, 2024, Disney retains certain trademark rights in the name and visual aspects of Mickey. Since 2007 Disney has taken steps to protect Steamboat Willie as a trademark by adding a clip from the 1928 short film to the opening sequence of every Walt Disney Animation Studios film. On September 13, 2022, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office registered WALT DISNEY ANIMATION STUDIOS consisting of a motion mark of an animator’s drawings of Steamboat Willie. In its unanimous opinion in Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., the Supreme Court warned “against misuse or overextension of trademark and related protections into areas traditionally occupied by…copyright.” 539 U.S. 23, 34 (2003). Even though Disney has trademarked the character, people are still free to use the 1928 Mickey Mouse if doing so is unlikely “to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive” consumers about the origin of the product. 15 U.S.C. §§1114, 1125(a).

One early indication of Disney’s position post Steamboat Willie entering the public domain, is Disney’s DMCA claim against a YouTuber’s Steamboat Willie 8-minute video post, which featured the entire short film along with the user’s own comedic audio track. Consistent with YouTube’s policies, the clip was demonetized, blocked from being embedded on third-party websites and hidden from view in certain countries. The comedian disputed the copyright claim, pointing to the fact that Steamboat Willie is now in the public domain. While YouTube’s policies grant a copyright owner a month to respond to copyright disputes, Disney dropped the claim within 24 hours.

A day after Steamboat Willie entered the public domain, indie director Steven LaMorte announced that he is set to direct an untitled horror-comedy based on Steamboat Willie, where the iconic mouse torments a group of innocent ferry passengers. On the other end of the spectrum, Randy Milholland, the current artist of the weekly “Popeye” comic strip, unveiled a new kid-friendly comic called “Mousetrapped.” Each comic features Mickey Mouse and what happened to him after the boat arrived at its destination. Kabuni, a company that provides a metaverse for K-12 children, is celebrating their “Stake a Future” launch with 10,000 Steamboat Willie-inspired non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

In April 2023, late-night host John Oliver predicted that “[b]asically, they may argue that this early Mickey’s image is so closely associated with their company that people automatically assume that any image of him was produced or authorized by them, and still take legal action.” Stay tuned to see how Disney chooses to pick its copyright battles going forward.