For the first time, however, Mickey himself is set to enter the public domain. “Steamboat Willie,” the 1928 short film that introduced Mickey to the world, will lose copyright protection in the US and a few other countries at the end of next year. The matter is more complicated than it appears, and those who try to capitalise on the expiring “Steamboat Willie” copyright could easily end up in a legal mousetrap. Only one copyright is expiring. It covers the original version of Mickey as seen in “Steamboat Willie”. This nonspeaking Mickey has a rat-like nose, rudimentary eyes (no pupils) and a long tail.
Later versions of the character remain protected by copyrights, including the sweeter, rounder Mickey with red shorts and white gloves most familiar to audiences today. They will enter the public domain at different points over the coming decades. The expiration of the “Steamboat Willie” copyright means that the black-andwhite short can be shown without Disney’s permission and even resold by third parties.
Disney has no copyright recourse, as long as the filmmaker adheres to the 1926 material and does not use any elements that came later. Here is where it gets tricky: Disney also holds trademarks on its characters and trademarks never expire as long as companies keep submitting the proper paperwork.
“Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film ‘Steamboat Willie,’ people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences and authentic products,” Disney said in a statement. “That will not change when the copyright in the ‘Steamboat Willie’ film expires. ”
The topic of Mickey Mouse and copyright has loomed in the public consciousness since the late 1990s, when Disney and other entertainment companies successfully lobbied Congress to extend copyright protections. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 to uphold what Congress had done.
Disney lawyers and lobbyists likely determined long ago that pressing Congress for another extension would fail. That means early versions of Popeye, King Kong, Donald Duck, Flash Gordon, Porky Pig and Superman will enter the public domain at various points over the next decade.