Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last couple of weeks — no judgment, the holidays are yours to do with as you see fit — then you’ll no doubt know that Steamboat Willie, the 1928 animated short that is considered the official debut of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, entered into the public domain at the start of the year, opening the door to a number of brand new derivative works.
The short’s entry into public domain had been delayed no less than three times; it was originally scheduled for 1955, before Disney renewed the copyright to 1986; that date was that shifted to 2003 as a result of the Copyright Act of 1976, before moving again to the end of 2023 thanks to the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which had gained the nickname “the Mickey Mouse Protection Act” by the time of its passing. Nonetheless, the day has finally arrived, making the Walt Disney Company’s flagship character public property… kind of.
The public domain status of what’s considered Mickey Mouse’s cinematic debut is somewhat misleading. Despite the common belief that it means Mickey (and Minnie) is no longer controlled by Disney, the reality is somewhat more complicated. The Mickey Mouse of Steamboat Willie doesn’t speak, is in black and white, and has significant visual differences from the more commonly recognized version of the character, with those three differences meaning that the “regular” Mickey is still under copyright… and even if that wasn’t the case, Disney still owns a trademark on all versions of Mickey Mouse, as trademarks don’t expire under U.S. law. In short: Disney is very, very much still in charge of Mickey Mouse — and likely going to be keeping a close eye on other Mickeys out there in the coming years.
(There’s also the fact that Steamboat Willie isn’t actually the first Mickey Mouse short; that would be Plane Crazy, first screened as a silent in May 1928, six months earlier… but as Plane Crazy is also public domain, that doesn’t change anything in any legal sense right now.)
Nonetheless, the public domain status, which took effect January 1, 2024, meant that a number of new Mickey Mouse projects from outside Disney have been announced — including some that would likely have made Uncle Walt very nervous indeed. Here are some of the first to be announced.
Mickey’s Mouse Trap
We have already shared the plans for a Mickey inspired slasher movie that looks not unlike last year’s Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, albeit with additional FNAF-adjacent vibes. Surely a sign of things to come.
Untitled Steamboat Willie movie
What was that about a sign of things to come? There’s already a second, entirely unrelated “Mickey, but he’s a slasher” movie in the works, although this one from The Mean One director Steven LaMorte seems to be more aware of its origins and limits: a story of a mouse killing ferry passengers, LaMorte has said that he’s not intending on using the name “Mickey” at al, instead preferring “Steamboat Willie.”
Already in development, this horror co-op game for 1-4 players will see them taking on what initially appears to be a rodent problem that is, of course, something far scarier. A trailer is already available on Steam.
Also currently available to view on Steam is Mouse, a 1920s-aesthetic noir game that describes itself as “a gritty, jazz-fueled shooter.” The game is set to release next year.
Genuinely surprisingly, none of these projects seem to factor in the other Disney characters that debut in the Steamboat Willie short: where are the Minnie Mouse projects? Where is Pete in all of this? (You know Pete; you might not know his name, but you'll recognize him when you see him.)
As I write this, it’s only January 2, meaning that Steamboat Willie has only been in the public domain for slightly over a day. Just imagine how many more projects are set to be announced over the coming weeks and months — and the response that the Disney Company is almost certainly already preparing to some of them. Keep an eye out: this might end up being one of the big stories of 2024.