The new year marks the nerdiest holiday you maybe didn’t know about: Public Domain Day. But this year’s celebration is extra special. After years of legal battles, “Steamboat Willie,” a 1928 Walt Disney short featuring Mickey Mouse, is now public domain.
No, that doesn’t mean that you can take the character of Mickey Mouse as we know him today and do whatever you want. But, Mickey Mouse as he appears in the “Steamboat Willie” animation? That’s public domain, baby.
Every January 1, a bunch of old works of literature, music and art enter the public domain, meaning that no one holds exclusive rights to the work anymore. Some works are created to be public domain from the get-go, but previously copyrighted works become public domain because the copyright can expire over time. Copyright law differs from country to country, but to put it simply, the concept of the public domain is why there’s a Winnie the Pooh slasher film (which has a 3% rating on Rotten Tomatoes…), or a queer “Great Gatsby” retelling.
Already, there have been multiple horror movie and video game adaptations announced that will feature the version of Mickey Mouse from “Steamboat Willie.” Generally, “because I can” is not an inspiration that generates great art (see, again, the Rotten Tomatoes rating on “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey”), but these are the situations in which life imitates a YouTube comments section: everyone wants to be “first.”
Mickey Mouse has already been remixed in certain media, like the TV show South Park, which created an egomaniacal Mr. Mouse character who is obsessed with owning everything. Mr. Mouse is an obvious rip off of Mickey, but depictions like this can be protected under a different subset of copyright law. Under fair use doctrine, some behaviors that might seem like copyright violations are legally permissible if they are transformative or satirical in nature (but of course, these are subjective parameters, which is a whole other can of legal worms).
Any notable work that enters the public domain will garner attention. But part of why there is such an excess of surprise “Steamboat Willie” adaptations is because Disney worked so hard to prevent this day from ever arriving.
“Steamboat Willie” was slated to enter the public domain in 1984, but Disney managed to extend that copyright for 40 more years through extensive government lobbying for two different copyright extension acts. First, Disney pushed for Congress to pass the Copyright Act of 1976, which delayed “Steamboat Willie” and Mickey Mouse’s public domain debut until 2004. By the 1990s, Disney continued to lobby for further extensions, which gave us the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, making “Steamboat Willie” safe until just a few days ago.
“Many people thought that Disney would keep up this fight. But I personally don’t find it that surprising that this day has finally come,” wrote Casey Fiesler, an associate professor of information science at CU Boulder. “It was inevitable. And it would have been both a hard fight and a PR nightmare to postpone this yet again.”
Some of Disney’s most iconic works were adapted from public domain stories, like “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, or the Brothers Grimm’s stories about Cinderella and Rapunzel. So, critics of Disney found its extensive lobbying for copyright extension to be hypocritical, with some even referring to the 1998 law as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”
On social media, avid meme-makers derive joy from the humiliation of large corporations. It’s like a David vs. Goliath situation, in which random posters want to feel as though they, random people on the internet, can actually stand up to untouchable corporations. The internet delighted to watch as someone abused Twitter’s botched blue check system to impersonate pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and declare that insulin was free. It’s like when the Bernie Sanders mittens meme went viral, and even an Amazon corporate Twitter account posted its own Bernie meme. And when users responded by pointing out that Sanders is one of Amazon’s most vocal critics, the meme was quickly deleted.
So, the version of Mickey Mouse from “Steamboat Willie” seems to be everywhere right now. Among crypto folk, some people are already making “Steamboat Willie” NFTs, which is a good idea that definitely won’t result in any scammy behavior. And among the nihilistic meme-makers, we’re seeing AI-generated images of Mickey Mouse doing 9/11, Mickey Mouse confessing to the murder of JFK and many more extreme representations of Mickey that we do not dare repeat on this website. People don’t make these memes because they actually endorse the idea of Mickey Mouse conducting a terrorist attack, but simply because they can.
This builds upon an existing, ongoing meme, in which people use generative AI to create the most heinous representations of copyrighted media possible, like pregnant Sonic the Hedgehog, or Hatsune Miku attending the January 6 riots. Only this time, there’s really nothing stopping the Mickey memes, so long as the creator explicitly references only the version of Mickey Mouse that appears in “Steamboat Willie.”
“Steamboat Willie” itself is surprisingly a ripe source material, considering that it’s a seven-minute short with no dialogue. While we’re used to seeing Mickey Mouse as an ultra-sanitized, wholesome figure, the 95-year-old “Steamboat Willie” film shows a different side of the mouse. Mickey gets blasted in the face with cow pee, throws a potato at a parrot, turns a goat into a music box and pulls on the tails of baby pigs to use them as instruments. His personality would fit better in “Tom and Jerry” than “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”
“Steamboat Willie” may be the first meme of 2024, but the novelty of poking fun at Disney will only last for so long. And if people aren’t careful, they might still face the ire of the mouse.
“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, and we will work to safeguard against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey and our other iconic characters,” Disney wrote in a statement in December.