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Disney to lose Mickey Mouse? Or at least the "Steamboat Willie" version thereof?

mharrington

Well-Known Member
Original Poster
I just came across this video from Get Behind the Castle, all about things happening in the Disney parks, and the title dramatically reads: "Disneyland losing Mickey Mouse?", with a dramatic blacking-out of Mickey while the rest of his friends remain intact. Here's the video for it (go to 9:54):


Okay, technically, only the "Steamboat Willie" Mickey Mouse, along with the 1926 versions of the Winnie the Pooh characters, will enter the public domain, while the rights to later versions of Mickey Mouse will be retained by Disney.

But even with that said, does that mean that Disney will no longer be able to show off "Steamboat Willie" in any meaningful way anymore? Will they have to get rid of "Steamboat Willie" from the parks (i.e., Fantasmic, the meet-n-greet in Toontown)? What about video games? Or toys? Or the Disney Villainous expansion pack which features Pete, particularly in his "Steamboat Willie" form? Will they have to pull that cartoon (literally one of the absolute few black-and-white shorts on there) from the Disney Plus streaming service? This seriously leads to a lot of questions.
 

Disney Irish

Premium Member
I just came across this video from Get Behind the Castle, all about things happening in the Disney parks, and the title dramatically reads: "Disneyland losing Mickey Mouse?", with a dramatic blacking-out of Mickey while the rest of his friends remain intact. Here's the video for it (go to 9:54):


Okay, technically, only the "Steamboat Willie" Mickey Mouse, along with the 1926 versions of the Winnie the Pooh characters, will enter the public domain, while the rights to later versions of Mickey Mouse will be retained by Disney.

But even with that said, does that mean that Disney will no longer be able to show off "Steamboat Willie" in any meaningful way anymore? Will they have to get rid of "Steamboat Willie" from the parks (i.e., Fantasmic, the meet-n-greet in Toontown)? What about video games? Or toys? Or the Disney Villainous expansion pack which features Pete, particularly in his "Steamboat Willie" form? Will they have to pull that cartoon (literally one of the absolute few black-and-white shorts on there) from the Disney Plus streaming service? This seriously leads to a lot of questions.

Disney isn't "losing the character". What is happening is the copyright for the "Steamboat Willie" version of Mickey is expiring and that version is going into the public domain. Unless of course Disney can find a way to renew the copyright again.

The only thing it really means is that others outside of Disney can potentially produce the "Steamboat Willie" version of Mickey for their own use without having to license it from Disney, nothing more. Disney can still use the character as they see fit.

Also there is some question about whether trademarks are enough to still protect the "Steamboat Willie" version of Mickey and keep it under Disney control. So that might overwrite any loss of the copyright.
 

WizardofDestiny123

Active Member
I just came across this video from Get Behind the Castle, all about things happening in the Disney parks, and the title dramatically reads: "Disneyland losing Mickey Mouse?", with a dramatic blacking-out of Mickey while the rest of his friends remain intact. Here's the video for it (go to 9:54):


Okay, technically, only the "Steamboat Willie" Mickey Mouse, along with the 1926 versions of the Winnie the Pooh characters, will enter the public domain, while the rights to later versions of Mickey Mouse will be retained by Disney.

But even with that said, does that mean that Disney will no longer be able to show off "Steamboat Willie" in any meaningful way anymore? Will they have to get rid of "Steamboat Willie" from the parks (i.e., Fantasmic, the meet-n-greet in Toontown)? What about video games? Or toys? Or the Disney Villainous expansion pack which features Pete, particularly in his "Steamboat Willie" form? Will they have to pull that cartoon (literally one of the absolute few black-and-white shorts on there) from the Disney Plus streaming service? This seriously leads to a lot of questions.

While it is understandable that there are concerns, under copyright law in the US, just because a specific work enters the public domain, this does not mean that the owner loses all versions of the work. If and when Steamboat Willie and the other early Mickey cartoons enter the public domain, this only means that any person or company can use the visuals and sounds of that cartoon and repurpose them.
It does not mean that Mickey Mouse becomes off-limits to Disney. It just means that the version of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie is available for everyone to reproduce. As others have pointed out, this will be very difficult to do because Disney retains the trademark rights to Mickey Mouse and Steamboat Willie, and they have those rights in perpetuity. In other words, if you put out a DVD that has Steamboat Willie or any other public domain cartoon featuring a character that is still trademarked, you cannot call the cartoon Mickey Mouse.
There are a few Porky Pig and Popeye cartoons that are in the public domain, but this doesn't mean that the characters are public domain as a whole.
Any new Mickey Mouse work from a company other than Disney cannot use elements of the character that originated later on. So, no Sorcerer Mickey Mouse, no color versions of Mickey, no Pluto, Donald Duck, or Goofy for another few years, etc. Barring any potential intervention by Congress to change the laws again, those original versions of the characters should all begin to enter the public domain over the next 15 years.
Other works that will be entering the public domain in the next 15 years include; Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Joker, Captain America, Namor, most of the early Looney Tunes, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind (book and the movie), Grapes of Wrath (film and book), Tom and Jerry, the first edition of The Hobbit, and the stage version of Peter Pan.
 

Robbiem

Well-Known Member
Its really complicated
Here in the UK at least there is a difference between something being in the public domain and someone being able to exploit that status for their own gain.

For example a book like Treasure Island is in the public domain but for a person to profit from that they need to create their own version of treasure island and not just reproduce another version of it so they would have to design and layout a new version of the text. Its a reason why some companies put deliberate mistakes in their work so they spot if someone else copies their work.

As wizardofdestiny123 says there is also the fact that Mickey and other characters are protected in perpetuity by trademarks and you have (at least here in the uk) legal torts like passing off where Disney could argue another version of steamboat willie was made to make people think it was a disney product

I think the next few years will be an interesting time as I don’t think anyone really knows what will happen until a case goes to the courthouse
 

mharrington

Well-Known Member
Original Poster
It's been about a year now, but I feel it's time to revive this thread, as it's now less than one year to go before Mickey is in the public domain. According to this video from DSNY Newscast (on which this site appears to be on decent terms), the usage of trademark, which is what Disney may try to invoke, is complicated:


Apparently, while Disney and many other companies may try and invoke trademark (as they probably will), they could easily run into trouble from the U.S. government. Since 2003, the Supreme Court had apparently become hostile to the use/abuse of trademarks by companies of all kinds. Disney lawyers may be powerful, but I doubt they're so powerful as to challenge, much less beat, the Supreme Court.

The video goes on to say that as a result, Disney will likely have to get creative with its trademark use on the early versions of the Disney characters. But frankly, I'm not sure how they can do that. They can hypothetically embrace the company's heritage, but I'm not sure I trust them to do so, as that would likely mean going back to that age-old question: "What would Walt do?" Moreover, I believe Bob Iger himself stated that the company's history and heritage have become a lot of baggage that appears to be dragging it (or rather, him) down.
 

Disney Irish

Premium Member
It's been about a year now, but I feel it's time to revive this thread, as it's now less than one year to go before Mickey is in the public domain. According to this video from DSNY Newscast (on which this site appears to be on decent terms), the usage of trademark, which is what Disney may try to invoke, is complicated:


Apparently, while Disney and many other companies may try and invoke trademark (as they probably will), they could easily run into trouble from the U.S. government. Since 2003, the Supreme Court had apparently become hostile to the use/abuse of trademarks by companies of all kinds. Disney lawyers may be powerful, but I doubt they're so powerful as to challenge, much less beat, the Supreme Court.

The video goes on to say that as a result, Disney will likely have to get creative with its trademark use on the early versions of the Disney characters. But frankly, I'm not sure how they can do that. They can hypothetically embrace the company's heritage, but I'm not sure I trust them to do so, as that would likely mean going back to that age-old question: "What would Walt do?" Moreover, I believe Bob Iger himself stated that the company's history and heritage have become a lot of baggage that appears to be dragging it (or rather, him) down.

Nothing has really changed in the last year. So the same answers as of a year ago still apply.

The Steamboat Willie version of Mickey is still set to go into the public domain in 2024. And Disney still has trademark protection over Mickey overall. And given that Disney has been producing Steamboat Willie merchandise over the last couple years strengthens that trademark claim. As it associates that version of Mickey to the company in the public consciousness.

Also one does not "beat" the Supreme Court, that is not how it works. A case is heard by the Supreme Court and they make a ruling either for or against based on the law. So if a Mickey trademark case ends up in the Supreme Court and Disney lawyers can make a compelling enough argument for why a trademark can be used in place of a copyright; the Supreme Court can agree and rule in their favor.
 

mharrington

Well-Known Member
Original Poster
Nothing has really changed in the last year. So the same answers as of a year ago still apply.

The Steamboat Willie version of Mickey is still set to go into the public domain in 2024. And Disney still has trademark protection over Mickey overall. And given that Disney has been producing Steamboat Willie merchandise over the last couple years strengthens that trademark claim. As it associates that version of Mickey to the company in the public consciousness.

Also one does not "beat" the Supreme Court, that is not how it works. A case is heard by the Supreme Court and they make a ruling either for or against based on the law. So if a Mickey trademark case ends up in the Supreme Court and Disney lawyers can make a compelling enough argument for why a trademark can be used in place of a copyright; the Supreme Court can agree and rule in their favor.

But what about that comment in the video about how, since 2003, the Supreme Court has been wary of the (over)use of companies' trademarks? What's more, I looked at the comments section in the video, and one of them argued that, thanks to Bob Chapek, Disney has burned a lot of bridges in the political community.
 

lazyboy97o

Well-Known Member
But what about that comment in the video about how, since 2003, the Supreme Court has been wary of the (over)use of companies' trademarks? What's more, I looked at the comments section in the video, and one of them argued that, thanks to Bob Chapek, Disney has burned a lot of bridges in the political community.
Intellectual property issues are generally settled on a case-by-case basis. What the different precedents mean depends a lot on the specifics of the case. Disney trying to use trademarks to stop someone from selling a compilation of public domain cartoons would probably result in Disney losing. Someone trying to make that compilation look like a Disney product is likely to lose.
 

Disney Irish

Premium Member
But what about that comment in the video about how, since 2003, the Supreme Court has been wary of the (over)use of companies' trademarks? What's more, I looked at the comments section in the video, and one of them argued that, thanks to Bob Chapek, Disney has burned a lot of bridges in the political community.
As mentioned its on a case-by-case basis. Meaning that if a case is compelling enough to be heard by the Supreme Court then each case's outcome is based on its own merit rather than just a single blanket decision over the whole topic. If its not compelling enough the Supreme Court would reject the case back to a lower court, where it would have been decided already.

As for the whole "Chapek burning bridges" thing, that is just someones opinion. Overall its not likely to affect much of anything when it comes to a Supreme Court case.
 

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