Early version of Disney’s Mickey Mouse will soon be public property

The expiration of the copyright of “Steamboat Willie” means that the black and white short film can be screened and even resold by third parties without Disney’s permission. (There might not be much retail value left, though. Disney posted it to YouTube for free years ago.) It also means everyone can use the film and the original Mickey to further express themselves — to create new stories and works of art.

Another Disney product, Winnie the Pooh offers a glimpse of what could happen.

This year, AA Milne’s 1926 children’s book Winnie-the-Pooh entered the public domain. An aspiring filmmaker has since made a low-budget, live-action slasher film titled Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, in which the chubby yellow bear goes wild. In one scene, Pooh and his friend Piglet use chloroform to incapacitate a bikini-clad woman in a hot tub and then run a car over her head.

Disney has no copyright claim as long as the filmmaker sticks to the 1926 material and doesn’t use elements that came later. (Pooh’s recognizable red shirt, for example, was added in 1930.) Fathom Events will host “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey,” directed by Rhys Waterfield, with a one-day theatrical run in the United States on February 2nd. fifteen.

This is where it gets tricky: Disney also holds trademarks for its characters, including the “Steamboat Willie” version of Mickey Mouse, and trademarks never expire as long as companies keep filing the right paperwork. A copyright covers a specific creation (unauthorized copying), but trademarks are there to protect consumers from confusion – to give consumers reassurance about the source and quality of a creation.

In short, any public domain use of the original Mickey cannot be perceived as coming from Disney, Ms. Ginsburg explained. That protection is strong, she added, because the character, even in her early form, has such a close connection to the company. People look at those ears and smile and “automatically associate it with Disney,” she said.

In 2007, Walt Disney Animation Studios redesigned their logo to incorporate the Steamboat Willie mouse. It preceded every film the unit has released since, including Frozen and Encanto, and deepened the old character’s connection with the company. (The logo is also trademarked.) Disney also sells Steamboat Willie merchandise, including socks, backpacks, mugs, stickers, shirts, and collectibles.

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