Written by: Nicholas Holmes
On January 1, 2024, the copyrighted 1928 motion picture “Steamboat Willie,” featuring one of the earlier-versions of Mickey Mouse, became public domain. The copyright protection for the motion picture expired, meaning that the characters, storyline, and other formerly protected elements are now able to be freely accessed and used by the public, without the requirement for the copyright owner to give permission for the use of the copyrighted material. For background, a copyright is a type of intellectual property that gives the creator of an original work, or another owner of the right, the exclusive, legally secured right to copy, distribute, adapt, display, and perform a creative work, usually for a limited time. Even before the copyright expired, an indie video game company announced they would be creating a Mickey Mouse horror video game that utilizes the 1928 Mickey Mouse silhouette as the villain. Discussion of Steamboat Willie horror film has been discuss, with production slated to begin in Spring of 2024. The immediate usage of familiar and famous material that has entered public domain is not uncommon; when the Winnie the Pooh stories written by A.A. Milne became public domain in 2022, movies and shows, such as “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey,” were produced and released.
While the motion picture and associated material becoming public domain may seem like a big deal (it is definitely newsworthy), the value to companies that utilize the now publicly available material may not be substantial. The Walt Disney Company (“Disney”) has already released the full 1928 motion picture on YouTube, and, maybe more importantly, Disney has registered trademarks for the Steamboat Willie design in connection with a variety of goods and services, as well as new iterations of the Mickey Mouse character.
While the Steamboat Willie material can be freely used, companies must be weary that the use of the material cannot create confusion or a false connection between the company and Disney, which is the standard for trademark infringement. A trademark is a type of intellectual property consisting of a recognizable sign, design, or expression that identifies a product or service from a particular source and distinguishes it from others. Certainly, the creation of a video game by an indie studio or production of a horror film would not be confused as being connected or sponsored by Disney; however, the use of Steamboat Willie material on shirts, drinkware, or other tangible products may create consumer confusion as to the source of the
products and lead consumers to believe that Disney produced or sponsored the products. So, while the Steamboat Willie material is fair game, companies should be weary that the use of the material is strictly used for creative expression and does not bleed into the world of trademarks and source identification. To prevent consumer confusion, the indie video game company will likely use its studio name in connection with the title of the game, and/or display a disclaimer that the work is not produced or sponsored by Disney. This is a way to prevent consumer confusion and alleged trademark infringement if the work is indeed not being used in an infringing manner.
It remains to be seen just how many creative pieces of work will be released using the now public domain Steamboat Willie material. As discussed above, different types of intellectual property, copyright and trademarks specifically, serve different purposes. However, the way the intellectual property is used determines whether the use is permitted (usage of public domain material) or prohibited (using material in a source-identifying manner). Full steam ahead!
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