Art Mickey Mouse, the copyright decline and creative consequences

Mickey Mouse, the copyright decline and creative consequences

Giulia Guido

January 1, 2024, didn’t just mark the beginning of a new year; it was a long-awaited date for many. But why? To answer this question, we must take a small – or perhaps a significant – leap back in time.

Steamboat Willie (1928)

It was on November 18, 1928, that the first episode of Steamboat Willie from the Mickey Mouse series aired. This wasn’t Mickey’s initial appearance; the character created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks had debuted on May 15 of the same year with Plane Crazy and returned on August 28 with The GallopinGaucho. However, the first two shorts didn’t achieve the success that Steamboat Willie did, turning Mickey Mouse into the true symbol of Disney.
Since then – thanks to its resounding success – the countdown began for the expiration of the copyright, seemingly an interminable wait.

Mickey Mouse and Copyrights

In fact, until 1998, in America, any work entered the public domain 75 years after its publication, meaning Steamboat Willie’s rights should have expired on December 31, 2003. However, in 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act was signed and approved, extending copyright terms to 95 years. The Disney corporation played a significant role in advocating for this law, earning it the nickname “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.

Fast forward to January 1, 2024, the day when – finally, some would say – Steamboat Willie (and also Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho) entered the public domain in the United States.

Mickey Mouse Enters the Public Domain

But what does this mean? It means that anyone can freely and without charge use the image of the 1928 Mickey Mouse to create new works, and that’s precisely what many were eagerly anticipating. Within hours, the web was flooded with movie trailers starring Mickey or AI-generated images depicting the famous cartoon character engaging in various activities.

One of the first to act was American director and producer Steven LaMorte, who promptly announced on his Instagram profile the arrival of a horror version of Steamboat Willie, accompanied by a synopsis: “A quiet boat ride at night turns into a desperate fight for survival in New York City when a mischievous mouse becomes a monstrous reality. Can a motley crew survive a killer creature with a taste for tourists?“.

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Un post condiviso da Steven LaMorte (@stevenlamorte)

However, this is not an isolated case. On January 1st, the trailer for “Mickey’s Mouse Trap” also appeared on YouTube, directed by Jamie Bailey, an American film director and cinematographer. Again, it’s a horror film, but set in an amusement park.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. On January 1, 2022, the expiration of the rights to Winnie the Pooh led to the swift appearance of the trailer for “Winnie The Pooh: Blood and Honey,” a slasher film that completely reimagined A.A. Milne’s character.

In this case, however, we’re not only talking about movies. On the same New Year’s Day, the game development company Nightmare Forge Games released the trailer for “Infestation 88,” a new horror game aiming to blend terror and nostalgia by transforming Steamboat Willie into something much scarier.

And let’s not forget the hundreds of AI-generated images where Mickey is depicted doing things not entirely suitable for children, such as smoking a joint, waving a communist flag, or being crucified. Some even decided not to have all the fun alone and created an AI model that exclusively generates Mickey Mouse images.

How free are we to create?

But can we really do anything? The answer is no. According to the law, as of now, you can use only the 1928 versions of Mickey and Minnie, and most importantly, you must declare through appropriate disclaimers that what you are doing is not in any way produced, endorsed, approved, or sponsored by Disney.

Is it right? Is it wrong?

The world is divided into two factions. On one side, there are those who will always stand against this way of revisiting and using well-known characters and works. On the other side, there are those who believe that making some works public domain can be an exceptional source of stimuli for creativity. Not convinced? Just think that if “Romeo and Juliet” hadn’t been in the public domain, we would never have gone to the cinema to see “West Side Story.” Or if Arthur Conan Doyle’s works hadn’t been free from rights, we would never have seen Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes.

Perhaps we, as viewers, might raise an eyebrow, but surely Disney can’t. After all, if there were a law that made copyright last forever, we would never have had animated films like “Alice in Wonderland,” “Snow White,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Pinocchio,” “Robin Hood,” “A Christmas Carol,” and dozens of other cartoons. Mickey Mouse would never have become an icon, and today, no one would be eager to transform him into the protagonist of their work.

Mickey Mouse
Written by Giulia Guido
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