For several decades, Disney has managed to keep the earliest footage of its iconic mouse protected.
Notably, the 1998 U.S. Copyright Term Extension Act, also dubbed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, extended copyright protection to 95 years.
When Walt Disney released “Steamboat Willie” in 1928, he couldn’t have envisioned how important this short film would become, or that its entrance into the U.S. public domain would spark headlines worldwide. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened.
On January 1, many people celebrated the public domain event by uploading “Steamboat Willie” to YouTube and elsewhere. This, ironically, triggered several takedown notices from Disney, which were swiftly retracted afterward.
At the same time, a trailer for a Mickey-themed horror movie was making the rounds. The early versions of the Mickey character are now free to use, so non-Disney creators can use that to their advantage.
This doesn’t mean that Mickey Mouse is completely free, however. Later iterations of the famous mouse remain well-protected and Disney has stated that it will safeguard those to the best of its ability.
“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 said.
Indeed, if we look at the recent takedown notices sent by Disney to Google there are plenty of Mickey references. There are even some mentioning “steamboat,” but those are not what they seem.
The steamboat mentions point to “Steamboat Silly,” which is the final episode in The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse series. This short, released last year, celebrates the 100th Disney anniversary by bringing back many key characters.
The episode is littered with easter eggs including references to the 1929 The Skeleton Dance and Dumbo’s debut in 1941. The undisputed star of the show, however, is the original Mickey Mouse.
To make things more confusing, “Steamboat Silly” also includes footage from “Steamboat Willie” which could confuse automatic content recognition systems that flag pirated content. For now, however, we have seen no concrete evidence of that.
As seen above, the publicly available takedown notices simply ask Google to remove URLs from its search engine that link to the 2023 “Steamboat Silly” release.
Strangely enough, we also noticed that music group BPI targeted a site listing Roblox videos that include “Steamboat Willie” footage to protect content from an artist named “Willie,” but that must be a mistake.
Just how ‘free’ Mickey Mouse is today has yet to be seen and controversy remains likely going forward. Public domain rules are not the same everywhere in the world, but it’s safe to say that anyone can use the original “Steamboat Willie” footage under U.S. law.
From a copyright angle, a public domain Mickey Mouse is highly intriguing, but it seems that pirates can’t be bothered by it.
We searched a few torrent and streaming sites for a copy of “Steamboat Willie”, both before and after it entered the public domain, without result. Not strange, perhaps, for a 95-year-old show, but quite the contrast compared to YouTube where people can monetize it.
Searching for “Steamboat” does return more pirate results, including copies of the 1928 classic “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” And the “Steamboat Silly” short, of course, which Disney can protect until 2119.
By then, we won’t be around to check though.
From: TF, for the latest news on copyright battles, piracy and more.