Has Steamboat Willie run out of steam?

As the clock struck midnight and 2023 came to a close, so too did the copyright protection afforded to the earliest version of Mickey Mouse.

So does this mark the end of Disney’s monopoly on Mickey Mouse and his image?

Steamboat Willie, a short film released by Walt Disney Studios in 1928, revolutionised the motion picture industry. It was the first movie starring Mickey Mouse which was released with synchronised sound. The film sounded the death knell on silent animation, a trailblazer which helped launch Disney as the iconic and household name it is today.

Over the past 95 years, the image of Mickey Mouse in the Steamboat Willie film has been protected with copyright. Copyright, as we know, protects original forms of work. Copyright gives the creator the right to stop someone from copying and reproducing their work. However copyright does not last forever, and as we moved into 2024 the copyright in the image of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie ceased to exist.

So what does this mean?

In theory, the image of Mickey Mouse as depicted in Steamboat Willie is now in the public domain. It is free to be used by the public without needing permission from Disney or paying a licence fee.

Within hours of the clock striking midnight, incarnations of Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie could be found on the internet, including an advert for ‘Mickey’s Mouse Trap ’. This horror film features a killer character wearing a mask which resembles Steamboat Willie’s Mickey Mouse. The concept follows the same trend as, but is separate to, the ‘Winnie The Pooh: Blood and Honey’ film launched in early 2023 when the copyright on AA Milne’s character Winnie The Pooh expired.

But can people really do what they want?

Don’t forget this is Disney we are talking about; the company with a brand value of $48,258 million. This is the company which will take on a legal battle involving anyone from a US Governor, to children’s nurseries who have painted a mural of Disney characters on their walls.

Disney knew this day was coming. And Disney was ready.

While the copyright in the image of Mickey Mouse as he appeared in Steamboat Willie has expired, the copyright in the image of Mickey Mouse – as he is known today – is very much in force. In addition, Disney has a suite of trade marks for Mickey Mouse which give enforceable rights to prevent the use of his image, as well as an image which is similar. These additional trade marks have another advantage – they can be renewed indefinitely.

Disney has also made it very clear that it will be monitoring the use of images, saying:

“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.

We will, of course, continue to protect our rights in the more modern versions of Mickey Mouse and other works that remain subject to copyright.”

So has Mickey run out of steam?

It’s clear that Disney will continue to protect the modern versions of Mickey Mouse. However this situation highlights the importance of having a portfolio of Intellectual Property (IP) rights. When something is important to you, don’t just look to rely on one IP right. IP rights are not mutually exclusive, so make use of all the other IP rights which are available to you. If one right is no longer available, or isn’t a viable option when it comes to enforcement, you then have a backup option.

Barker Brettell has a specialist team of Chartered Trade Mark Attorneys who can assist and advise you. To continue the conversation, please contact the author, or your usual Barker Brettell attorney.