The steamer Willie version of Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain in 2024. Victoria Schwartz, a law professor at Pepperdine’s Caruso School of Law, explains that the Disney trademark on the Steamer Mickey could give the company some cover when copyright law no longer allows it. Copyrights expire, but trademark protection can last indefinitely, provided holders keep their registration up to date.
“If you watch any Disney movies lately (I have a toddler so we watch a lot), you will notice that they open the movie with a little excerpt from steamer Willie”, she writes via email. This keeps that version of Mickey connected to Disney in the mind of the audience. Yet this protection is more limited: people will still be able to use that first Mickey Mouse, as long as their interpretation cannot be construed as Disney’s. (See also: Frake-Waterfield and his Michael Myers-sized Pooh.)
Mickey and Disney aren’t the only ones facing a ticking clock. Bugs Bunny, Batman, and Superman, all currently owned by Warner Bros., will enter the public domain in the decades to come. But early Superman could only “jump tall buildings at once,” not fly. A legal battle is likely imminent. “Aspects of the Bugs Bunny, Batman, and Superman characters added later would remain protected, and if someone took those aspects, I expect [Warner Bros.] would sue,” says Schwartz.
Finally this one works must enter the public domain. If their original creators no longer benefit from them, it’s in the public interest to let other creators use them. “If you think about the original term, it was to encourage authors. So the author could enjoy that protection for 14 years,” says Harris. “Now we say that even after the author’s entire lifetime, we’re going to give another 70 years.” That should be long enough, he says.
Fifty years from now, numerous popular characters should all look very different, just like Pooh to those who have seen it Blood and Honey. The excessive length of modern copyright protections has ensured that no character created in this lifetime ends up in the public domain, but the stream of copyright expirations at least allows artists to repeat on the work of previous generations. “It becomes so much more of a rich world for budding filmmakers and budding artists to be able to leverage and use these very well-known IPs and characters to build their careers,” says Frake-Waterfield.
Blood and Honey cost less than $100,000 to make, but it grossed over $4 million in its limited release. With extra cash, Frake-Waterfield hopes, he’ll be able to make higher-quality future installments — showing off bloodier VFX — in his public domain cinematic universe. And he would like to work with characters that are still under copyright. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which are half human, half turtles that live in the sewer.” he says. “You can easily twist that into horror.” But first: Bambi: The reckoning.