Steamboat Willie Enters the Public Domain and Embarks on a New Adventure

Emma AistropNews & Insights

Over the last few years, several of Walt Disney’s most famous characters have adopted a new persona that removes them from their quintessential family-friendly environment. For example, one of Disney’s earliest versions of Mickey Mouse, “Steamboat Willie,” will soon star in two horror films directed by Steven LaMorte.1  The horror films will highlight Mickey’s original black and white features, dark hollow eyes, and line-drawn smile––all of which pointedly diverge from today’s friendly version of Mickey Mouse.2 These announcements followed shortly after Steamboat Willie’s copyright expired earlier this year and entered the public domain.[1] As a result, Disney is eternally prevented from pursuing copyright infringement for the original version of America’s favorite mouse.[2] This recent trend of repurposing prominent characters may pose as a threat to global brands that work tirelessly to protect their legacies.  

Creatives can take advantage of works that enter the public domain due to existing parameters within copyright law. Significantly, to qualify for copyright protection the work must be “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” and have sufficient originality.[3] A “tangible medium of expression” refers to a work that has been written or recorded in some manner.[4] One of the most common ways a work enters the public domain is through copyright expiration.[5] The duration of copyright varies based on the date of first publication, the author of the work, and the country recognizing the copyright.[6] As a general rule, the United States recognizes the copyright term as the life of the author plus 70 years.[7]

Another director has also capitalized on this trend. In January 2022, several Hundred Acre Woods residents, including Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, and Tigger entered the public domain.[8] This occurred after A.A. Milne’s  books, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner faced copyright expirations.[9] Similar to Mickey Mouse’s horror film debut, director Rhys Waterfield thrust Pooh and Piglet into a thriller entitled Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.[10] Frake-Waterfield likewise announced a sequel that will incorporate Tigger into the horror genre.[11] Notably, Frake-Waterfield’s earlier film received largely negative reviews,[12] with several critics lamenting the film for its inept take on beloved childhood characters.[13] With this new trend emerging, it sparks the question: what rights do creators have to protect the legacy of their works?

Under some circumstances, copyright owners may continue to retain some level of control over their characters after a copyright expiration. For example, Disney still owns the copyright for modern-day Mickey Mouse, even though Steamboat Willie’s specific features can be freely used.[14] In this instance, public use is confined to the early version of Mickey Mouse.[15] Therefore, creators intending to incorporate characters that have entered the public domain must be cautious about utilizing the specific works and characters that are no longer protected by copyright.

Disney recently discussed the additional lengths it will take to protect its characters. Disney expressed its intent to firmly protect its rights to the more modern versions of its characters by defending its trademarks and pursuing any false endorsement by its brand.[16] Because trademarks do not expire like copyrights, Disney will be able to use those statutes to extend control over its intellectual property.[17] In response, LaMorte claims “[w]e are doing our due diligence to make sure there’s no question or confusion of what we’re up to. This is our version of a public domain character. It’s a scary thrill ride with heart and humor, based on this character that everybody knows.”[18] Notably, the film’s character will go by “Steamboat Willie” as opposed to Mickey Mouse.[19]

Despite these concerns about copyright expirations, consumers may still be able to extract value from characters once they enter the public domain. Since critics have not enthusiastically accepted the recent inclusion of Disney’s characters in unendorsed films, there may be a future where these characters escape the big screen and become museum exhibits. Experiential spaces that showcase popular works through digital art technology have gained popularity.[20] Many experiential attractions are able to travel the globe due to the digital nature of the artwork, which has eliminated the high cost of transporting the physical pieces of art.[21] More notably, these experiences remove a barrier to entry by allowing viewers to actively engage with the art.[22] Additionally, a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that higher levels of immersion were associated with heightened emotions, such as happiness and feeling relaxed.[23] These benefits may contribute to the recent surge of interest in immersive art.[24]

Steamboat Willie influenced the expansion of U.S. copyright law.  Steamboat Willie’s copyright was originally set to expire in 1984 because the Copyright Act of 1909 only granted copyright protection for 56 years.[25] However, when Steamboat Willie was approaching the public domain in the 1970s, Disney campaigned to extend Steamboat Willie’s copyright duration, resulting in Congress enacting the Copyright Act of 1976.[26] Disney lobbied for an additional extension up until this year––resulting in the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, also named ‘The Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”[27] Specifically, this Act provides works of corporate authorship with copyright protection for 95 years from the original publication and is the law applied to works today.[28] Given Disney’s tremendous authority over intellectual property protection, the question of whether Disney will attempt to extend the copyright of the more recent version of its famous mascot remains.[CG1] 


1 Samantha Delouya, Multiple Mickey Mouse Horror Movies Announced as Steamboat Willie Enters Public Domain, CNN (Jan 3, 2024), https://www.cnn.com/mickey-mouse-horror-movies-public-domain/index.html.

2 See Id.

[1] Id.

[2] Id.

[3] What is the Public Domain?, CopyrightLaw.com (Mar 7, 2023), https://www.copyrightlaws.com/what-is-the-public-domain.

[4] Id.

[5] Welcome to the public domain, Stanford Libraries,https://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/public-domain/welcome/ (last visited Feb 15, 2024).

[6] Id.

[7] How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?, U.S. Copyright Office, https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-duration.html#:~:text=For%20an%20anonymous%20work%2C%20a,its%20creation%2C%20whichever%20expires%20first (last visited Feb 15, 2024).

[8] Jake Coyle, Winnie the Pooh Just Entered Public Domain and Pop Culture May Never Be the Same, National Post (Feb 14, 2023), https://nationalpost.com/entertainment/movies/in-which-winnie-the-pooh-stars-in-an-r-rated-slasher-movie#:~:text=Pooh%2C%20Piglet%2C%20Kanga%2C%20Roo,Shepard%2C%20expired.

[9]  Id.

[10]  Id.

[11] Clark Collis, There’s Nothing Wonderful About Tigger in Sequel to Viral Winnie-the-Pooh Horror Movie, Entertainment Weekly (Feb 5, 2024), https://ew.com/tigger-winnie-the-pooh-blood-and-honey-2-trailer-8559055.

[12] See e.g., Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey receives a 3% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/winnie_the_pooh_blood_and_honey (last visited February 25, 2024).

[13] For example, Top Critic Ziba Adel writes “Rhys Frake-Waterfield cloddishly desecrates your childhood, and AA Milne’s beloved classic, with a dimly written, shoddily realised, sub-standard slasher whose artistic aspirations never reach beyond making a fast buck.” Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/winnie_the_pooh_blood_and_honey (last visited February 25, 2024).

[14] Delouya, supra note 1.

[15]  Id.

[16] Gene Maddaus, ‘Steamboat Willie’ Horror Film Announced as Mickey Mouse Enters Public Domain, Variety(Jan 2, 2024), https://variety.com/2024/film/news/steamboat-willie-horror-film-mickey-mouse-public-domain-copyright-1235849861/.

[17] Neda Ulaby, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is Now in the Public Domain. What Does That Mean for Mickey Mouse?, WBUR (Jan 1, 2024), https://www.wbur.org/npr/1221606624/mickey-mouse-public-domain-disney.

[18] Maddaus, supra note 16.

[19] Id.

[20] See e.g., Laura Dowdy, The Public Domain and Immersive Art: How Copyright Law Impacts Interactive Art Experiences, Center for art law (Mar 23, 2023), https://itsartlaw.org/2023/03/23/the-public-domain-and-immersive-art-how-copyright-law-impacts-interactive-art-experiences/#:~:text=On%20December%2031st%2C%20each%20year,aspects%20of%20previously%20copyrighted%20works.

[21] Id.

[22] Minmin, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, Art Appreciation or Sensationalization?, Medium (Jul 3, 2023), https://medium.com/@_monmon.00/van-gogh-the-immersive-experience-art-appreciation-or-sensationalization-b853ecf6ea13.

[23] Cat Wise, Immersive Exhibitions Are Changing the Way People Consumer Art, PBS (Dec. 27, 2023), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/immersive-exhibitions-are-changing-the-way-people-consume-art.

[24] See e.g., Id.  

[25] Grace Eliza Goodwin, Disney is About to Lose Its Decades-Long Battle to Keep Mickey Mouse Out of the Public, Business Insider (Dec 14, 2023), https://www.businessinsider.com/disney-mickey-mouse-copyright-public-domain-lobbying-history-2023-12.

[26] Id

[27] Kshitij Mohan Rawat, How Disney Routinely Exerted Influence on the US Copyright Law to Keep Its Greatest Asset – Mickey Mouse, WION (Jan 4, 2023), https://www.wionews.com/opinions-blogs/how-disney-routinely-exerted-influence-on-the-us-copyright-law-to-keep-its-greatest-asset-mickey-mouse-549141.

[28] Id