For its vigorous pursuit of copyright extension and trademark protection the Walt Disney Company is often made to be the villain in the war for freedom of expression and artistic expression. I obviously have a dog, or two, in this fight (my content is stolen all the time, but I also license it under a CC license for easier fair use). Additionally, I am a bit conflicted over whether I think copyright extension has gone too far, which I do, versus protection of the lovable characters created by Walt Disney and his artists, where I would hate to see others, who may not have the same love and passion that Disney’s artists do, in control.
So this article in the LA Times about how the Walt Disney Company may have flubbed the copyright for Mickey Mouse during his early days, definitely interests me. The short of it is, copyright laws can be very arcane and how it’s enforced today often depends on the requirements dating from the era of its creation. Apparently a researcher, a former Disney employee who doesn’t like the way the company is treating Walt’s creations, found that the original release of Steamboat Willie was on shaky copyright grounds.
There’s a lot more to the story than that. But the end result is Disney may or may not have lost the copyright on the Steamboat Willie short, but they still own the trademarks on all the various Disney characters (with a few exceptions where the Disney characters are based on public domain stories). So even if someone was to press for a public domain use of Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie and try and market that movie or stills from it, they would still face a very costly legal battle from Disney’s deep pocket over exactly how the film could be used without violating Disney trademark on Mickey Mouse.
In no way does this mean Disney no longer owns Mickey Mouse. Nor did Disney lose the copyright or trademark on Mickey or any other Disney characters (many iconic characters got their start in Steamboat Willie). At the most, I think you might see a few people try and sneak a full version of the Steamboat Willie short on a DVD or compilation with a clear disclaimer about how they’re not Disney and that the movie is in the public domain.
I, for one, would like to see a version of Steamboat Willie where a true passionate fan of early Disney animation is able to show how the magic was made. Sort of a subject matter expert DVD commentary. Or how about some mashups or remixes of the short with other music or animation cues. Public Domain would allow that. As long as it was clear it wasn’t Disney making those editions.
Eventually everything must enter the public domain where it can be used to create new artistic endeavors. This is how cultures grow and stay healthy. They question now is just when?