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Steamboat Willie steers into the public domain

By Ariel Lee Feb. 14, 2024 The black ears, oversized gloves and big yellow shoes of this special mouse are recognizable everywhere. An icon of the Walt Disney franchise, Mickey Mouse was first created in 1928 by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. The original version of Mickey is known as Steamboat Willie, who steers a steamboat while whistling to a song. However, Steamboat Willie’s 95-year copyright term expired at the beginning of this year, placing him in the public domain. Now unprotected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark or patent laws, no one owns the character—yet anyone is allowed to use it.

Keeping Mickey Mouse’s copyright for 95 years was not an easy process. Disney had to lobby the U.S. government to bypass the original expiration date in 1984, altering the copyright law to last 50 years after the creator’s death. Disney lobbied the government again in 2004 when Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael D. Eisner requested another 20-year extension. Despite Disney’s efforts to renew the copyright once more, U.S. copyright law dictates that the company is only able to hold exclusive rights to the hallmark for 95 years—which expired on Jan. 1 this year.

Daniel Choi Art

With Steamboat Willie going public, artists now have the freedom to produce creative, unique pieces inspired by the character. For example, there have been renditions of the original Steamboat Willie in the anime style. Similar adaptations have also been created with other Disney characters in the public domain, such as Winnie the Pooh, who was reimagined as a bloodthirsty murderer in a horror movie titled “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.” Similar ideas are circulating about putting Mickey Mouse into a horror movie. 

“Mickey becoming public can lead to more creativity because a big part of art is inspiration from others. Other animators or artists can build off of Mickey’s design to create new, modernized work. Characters' copyrights should be allowed to expire and enter the public domain like Mickey because, after a period of time, the general public should have the ability to expand on a creative work,” Sophomore Isabella Cruz said. 

However, some netizens worry that this will destroy the pure, innocent figures of these children’s show characters. Moreover, many believe that copyright must be preserved to protect symbolic characters. 

“Steamboat Willie becoming a public figure will most likely impact Disney by making the original character more widely known and allowing for more opportunities to gain publicity through the creation of new merchandise, media and potentially theme parks. However, I think that Mickey's new publicity could also end up harming the company because people may abuse the lack of copyright,” Freshman Jessamine Sloan said. 

While Steamboat Willie is in the public domain, the latest version of Mickey Mouse is still owned by Disney, meaning that there can be no new interpretations of this character. This way, Mickey will continue to play a leading role as a global ambassador for the Walt Disney franchise in merchandise and theme park attractions. Any pieces that use the Mickey mascot can still be taken to court by Disney, and the artist may be sued. However, as long as they use the original Steamboat Willie, nothing will be charged.

As the public continues to debate over whether the copyright of iconic characters should be kept or allowed to expire, Steamboat Willie going public has spurred a bloom of creativity from artists, which could further expand the popularity of Disney’s franchise and bring to light the history of Mickey Mouse.


About the Contributors

Ariel Lee staff writer Ariel Lee is a freshman at Leland High School and is a page writer for her first year in journalism. In her free time, she likes to sleep, do nothing, binge shows (kdramas), and listen to music.

Daniel Choi artist Daniel Choi is a junior at Leland High School and an artist for The Charger Account. During his free time, he enjoys watching shows, taking walks, and sleeping.

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