Disney putting ‘Steamboat Willie’ back to work

Company working to protect character from public domain

He is almost 95 years old, but the original Mickey Mouse from “Steamboat Willie” is starting to pop back up on clothes, rides and other merchandise.

Copyright Attorney Aaron Moss said that’s because Disney is trying to keep the original Mickey out of the public domain.

Moss said the whole thing started in 1928 when “Steamboat Willie” was first released.

“Copyright at that time was limited to a 28-year term and a 28-year additional term if you renewed it,” he said. “Over the years through various legislation from the likes of Sonny Bono that got extended to now 95 years from the date of publication with respect to something like “Steamboat Willie.”

Moss said that means January 1, 2024, “Steamboat Willie” will be in the public domain.

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He said that means you can charge people to watch the movie at your house and can use the “Steamboat Willie” version of Mickey Mouse in new creations.

For instance, Moss said if you wanted to do the “New Adventures of ‘Steamboat Willie,’” you can.

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But, it has to be that iteration of Mickey Mouse, from when he was more ratlike with black, small eyes and a pointy nose, not the later version of Mickey that looks like he had a facelift with a shortened nose and more prominent ears, which is still protected by copyright and cannot be used.

Even though the copyright is expiring Moss said Disney still owns trademark protection for Mickey Mouse and unlike a copyright, which is fixed for a limited amount of time, a trademark can be perpetual.

“So long as the mark is being used to identify the exclusive source of a particular good or service you can have trademark protection,” he said.

That’s where the old Mickey’s new job comes into play.

“I’ve noticed that lately, they have been selling more Steamboat Willie-related merchandise,” he said. “I think they even have a tie-in with H&M. So, they are certainly trying to, in advance of the public domain date on this character, put a stake in the ground that, ‘Hey we also want trademark rights.’”

“It can sometimes be tricky to figure out where the copyright ends and where does the trademark begin,” he added.

He said you can’t violate trademark law by simply using the copyright, for instance putting it in a new work, or showing the film.

So, Moss said “Steamboat Willie” could go the way of Winnie the Pooh and end up in a horror flick like “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.”

So far Disney has not made any public statements about the Blood and Honey movie.

But Moss does expect there to be fights about what is a copyright and what is a trademark use surrounding the “Steamboat Willie” version of Mickey.

Learn more about the upcoming copyright deadline and what copyright attorney Aaron Moss has to say about it on Florida’s Fourth Estate. You can download it from wherever you listen to podcasts or watch anytime on News 6+.

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Tiffany produces the News 6+ Takeover at 5:30 p.m., Florida's Fourth Estate and Talk to Tom.

Emmy Award-winning anchor Matt Austin joined the News 6 team in June 2011 and has been the evening news co-anchor since December 2013.