The expiration of the “Steamboat Willie” copyright means that the black-and-white short can be shown without Disney’s permission and even resold by third parties. (There may not be much sales value left, however. Disney posted it for free on YouTube years ago.) It also means that anyone can make use of the film and the original Mickey to further expression — to create new stories and artwork.
Winnie the Pooh, another Disney property, offers a window into what could happen.
This year, the 1926 children’s book “Winnie-the-Pooh,” by A.A. Milne, came into the public domain. An upstart filmmaker has since made a low-budget, live-action slasher film called “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey,” in which the pudgy yellow bear turns feral. In one scene, Pooh and his friend Piglet use chloroform to incapacitate a bikini-clad woman in a hot tub and then drive a car over her head.
Disney has no copyright recourse, as long as the filmmaker adheres to the 1926 material and does not use any elements that came later. (Pooh’s recognizable red shirt, for instance, was added in 1930.) Fathom Events will give “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey,” directed by Rhys Waterfield, a one-day theatrical release in the United States on Feb. 15.
Here is where it gets tricky: Disney also holds trademarks on its characters, including the “Steamboat Willie” version of Mickey Mouse, and trademarks never expire as long as companies keep submitting the proper paperwork. A copyright covers a specific creation (unauthorized copying), but trademarks are designed to protect against consumer confusion — to provide consumers assurance about the source and quality of a creation.
Boiled down, any public domain use of the original Mickey cannot be perceived as coming from Disney, Ms. Ginsburg explained. This protection is strong, she added, because the character, even in his early form, has such close association with the company. People glance at those ears and smile and “automatically associate it with Disney,” she said.
In 2007, Walt Disney Animation Studios redesigned its logo to incorporate the “Steamboat Willie” mouse. It has appeared before every movie the unit has released since, including “Frozen” and “Encanto,” deepening the old character’s association with the company. (The logo is also protected by a trademark.) In addition, Disney sells “Steamboat Willie” merchandise, including socks, backpacks, mugs, stickers, shirts and collectibles.