The classic animated short Steamboat Willie has entered public domain, but Disney has been quick to point out that Mickey Mouse isn’t up for grabs.
At the start of this year, one of Mickey Mouse’s earliest iterations has entered the public domain. However newer appearances of Mickey Mouse remain the exclusive property of Disney.
Despite Mickey from Steamboat Willie being the same character, the mascot mouse’s appearance has changed drastically. Most notably his 1940s and onward version with full eyes (as opposed to mete black ovals) which has been his most common appearance in the decades since.
This might seem like splitting hairs, but this distinction is important for The Walt Disney Company which regularly uses their unique spins on characters in order to divorce them from the original copyright. For example Disney’s iteration of Winnie the Pooh isn’t public domain, while the original A.A. Milne and the very concept of “Winnie the Pooh” is Public Domain. This is what allowed filmmakers to create Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey without running afoul of Disney’s legal team.
Only time will tell if Jagged Edge Productions is working on something like Steamboat Willie: Rats and Ashes.
You can check out the original Steamboat Willie short here.