Image: Flickr/ Craig Duffy

You may soon see a gangster Mickey Mouse but Disney needn’t worry

This year’s Public Domain Day in the US saw the entry of the original Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie, into the hallowed ranks of classic media that is no longer protected by intellectual property rights, with the cartoon mouse joining beloved characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Bugs Bunny. Though, expectedly, Disney did not set their iconic mascot free without a fight. Derisively known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”, which is arguably an unfair title considering Disney was only one of numerous companies involved in the case, the media conglomerate lobbied for a 20-year extension of the existing copyright act in the US in 1998, raising the shield for protection of their works to 95 years. Now on his 96th birthday, the 1928 Steamboat Willie is free for the public to mould into whatever they see fit, as the video-gaming company Fumi has already sunk its teeth into a 2025-planned film Mouse centring a bloodthirsty gangster, Mickey. While gangster-hood is a far throw from the frolicking captain mouse that remains a pivotal part of childhood entertainment almost a century after its conception, Disney certainly need not worry about the tarnishing of the character’s image. They still hold the trademark to everyone’s favourite mouse, meaning nobody else can create something using the character that could be confused for being produced by Disney, keeping brand identity intact.  

Nothing can corrupt the cherished childhood character’s image

Yet, Disney’s protections don’t just end there. With innumerable iterations of the character over the decades, it is only the black-and-white Charlie Chaplin inspired Mickey from 1928 that enters the public domain. As colour came into the equation in The Band Concert, and Mickey’s skin then gained a tint in the 1940 film Fantasia, the past century has seen so many variations of the character that remain copyrighted, as the clubhouse gang then jumped into 3D animation and subsequently returned to a retro style in the Mickey Mouse shorts in 2013, all of which remain untouchable for many more years.  

Even when these characters come out of their copyright cocoon, Disney will inevitably have created more new versions that mean the image of the modern-day mouse is not strongly associated with an older iteration, just as the mention of Mickey Mouse today does not spring to mind the image of Steamboat Willie. With their backs covered, Disney owes this contribution to the public domain that they have benefitted immensely from, capitalising upon classic tales from Perrault’s Cinderella to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid so greatly that when we think of these stories, the Disney version is at the forefront of our minds. Especially having lobbied to get an extension on copyright protection, Steamboat Willie eventually has to set sail into the public domain; 2024 is the year we may see versions of the beloved mouse like never before, but nothing can corrupt the cherished childhood character’s image.  


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