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Common Reading 2022: Free (Steamboat) Willie: How Walt Disney’s Original Mouse Could be Entering the Public Domain by Jacob Douglas

Free (Steamboat) Willie: How Walt Disney’s Original Mouse Could be Entering the Public Domain — Jacob Douglas

In 2024, Disney’s Steamboat Willie enters the public domain and with it, the original Mickey Mouse. Or, at least, it’s supposed to. Douglas notes that, even though Disney is not making any moves to lobby for copyright extensions, it has in the past. Additionally, they still hold the trademark for Mickey Mouse, adding a layer of complication to the process. Regardless, there are mixed reactions to its release to the public, as Douglas discusses.

Discussion Questions

1. What is the value of copyright? With the invention of the internet, how has copyright become more complicated? Do you think current copyright law is fair, or should it be less restrictive? Or more restrictive?

2. How much say should corporations like Disney have in things like renewing copyright law?

Class Activity

Find a property that is in the public domain. With the permissions granted to it, think about ways that you can transform, or “remix” that property, and attempt to do so. Reflect on the originality of your final result. Is it something entirely new?

Introduction — Randy Robertson

Every New Year’s Day, a harvest of works enters the public domain. “Public Domain Day,” as it’s called, ushers copyrighted books, musical compositions, sound recordings, and visual art into a commons, on which all may freely draw. Copyright is good for authors and publishers; it allows them to make a living off their intellectual property. However, as Jacob Douglas observes in his article on Walt Disney, copyright protection has grown from a 14-year term, renewable once, under the 1790 Copyright Act to a term of 70 years plus the life of the author under the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, for which the Disney Corporation intensively lobbied. Ironies abound: Walt Disney drew on works in the public domain to create his masterpieces, renewing old works for new generations, but as copyright expert Lawrence Lessig is fond of pointing out, “no one can do to the Disney Corporation what Walt Disney did to the Brothers Grimm.” That will soon change: the copyright on Disney’s famous mouse will expire on January 1, 2024, at which point non-Disney writers and artists can create new stories for Mickey Mouse, a process of renewal that many would say is long overdue.

Walt Disney Animation Studios' Steamboat Willie

This is the original video of Disney's "Steamboat Willie," considered to be the debut of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse.

About the Author

Jacob Douglas is a storyteller, podcaster, and writer from Carthage, Illinois. A recent graduate of the University of Missouri, Douglas spent a year covering the rural communities outside of the Kansas City metropolitan area. He also co-hosts a podcast with his friends Caitlin Brenner, Sam Kingma, and Sam Mosher called Critically Panned where he discusses pop culture and current events. 

Additional Resources

Check out this modern reimagining of Steamboat Willie, titled "Disney's Steamboat Willie Redux By Joel Turssel | 2018 Full Color Animated Short."

According to the Steamboat Willie Redux video description:

"Steamboat Willie Redux premiered at Mickey: The True Original Exhibition in New York City on November 18, 2018, 90 years after Walt Disney's original Steamboat Willie made its debut. The sign next to the viewing area reads: 'Steamboat Willie Redux is a modern, graphic reimagining of Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie, the original synchronized sound cartoon short featuring first public appearance of Mickey Mouse. The short was broken up into 35 scenes which were assigned to various artists or teams of artists from all over the world. We asked each contributor or team to synchronize their animation to the original soundtrack and (for the sake of continuity) to compose their scenes using the original scene layout. Artists were encouraged to be as imaginative and graphically playful. The end result is an exciting, contemporary interpretation of the classic 1928 Mickey Mouse short film.'"


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