LA Times on Disney’s Mickey Mouse copyright

Today’s Los Angeles Times has a terrific page-one article on the quirks of Disney’s copyright of Mickey Mouse and explains how the images of the early Mickey may be available for public domain use.

It’s not a news story, but an overview of the company’s 80 years of copyright enforcement, and a profile of several folks (including former Disney archivist Gregory Brown) who have attempted to expose the holes in Disney’s copyright claims. To quote the piece: “Welcome to the wonderful world of copyright law.” To read it online click here.

Update: As addendum to the Times article read Lauren Van Pelt’s and Douglas A. Hedenkamp’s papers on Disney copyright.

(Thanks, Aaron H. Bynum)


  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    The article seems to confuse “copyright” and “trademark”.

    Films like “Steamboat Willie” and “Mad Doctor” may have become PD by now, but Mickey Mouse the character is a trademark and trademarks can be eternal.

    Or does the Harvey case mean otherwise? If any image of a trademark is PD does that mean the whole trademark is invalid?

    Could I cite an old uncopyrighted snapshot of Elvis as evidence of non-trademarkedness to avoid paying any royalties to the Elvis estate for using his image?

  • http://Mr.FunsBlog Floyd Norman

    If you plan to duel with Darth Vader, I suggest you bring your light sabre.

    And, good luck.

  • amid

    Robcat20775: The article clearly states: “For the record, any knock-offs would have to make clear that they did not come from Disney, or else risk violating the separate laws that protect trademarks.”

    I think the laws are that as long as the person making the reproductions doesn’t try to pass it off as actual Disney product and makes it clear that it’s a non-Disney product, then they’re in the clear.

  • The Animator

    “Welcome to the wonderful world of copyright law.”

    Words that a cartoonist dreads to hear.

  • Paul N

    What becomes public domain is the film itself, not Mickey and the other characters in the film. People could use imagery from the film as they see fit to create derivative works.

  • amid

    Paul: Your comment is inaccurate. If you read the article, you’ll see that the piece is about how the earlier incarnation of Mickey has fallen into the public domain, and not just the films themselves.

  • Wm C.Wallace

    I wonder what Dan O’Neills’ take on this would be? ODD BODKINS!!!

  • Paul N

    Amid, what I said is based on copyright law, not the L.A. Times article (which I did read in its entirety).

    I have to wonder though – if you felt the comment was inaccurate, why did you post it? It’s not like it goes up without moderation. So why not just not post it? You’ve done that to me (and others, I assume) in the past…

  • http://mymedicatedlife.blogspot.com/ Bitter Animator

    We should all make Steamboat Willy sequels. Every single one of us. A Steamboat Willy 2 extravaganza.

  • Chuck R.

    Amid is reading the article right, but as long as the Disney Company can afford lawyers, Mickey will be safe at home where he belongs.

    That is until Eric Cartman gets a higher Q-rating. :-)

  • Earl Hurd

    If they’re going by the “Steamboat Willie” title card in the L.A. Times article, it’s not the original version. It was redrawn years later. One can tell by watching the light variance in the cartoon itself, shot on a camera in the 1920′s that had an irregular shutter. This title card, shot on a far better rig, has consistent light throughout its footage length. What did the original title card say, how was it laid out, and did the same names appear on it in the same order?

  • Bill5925

    Earl,
    I’m only guessing here, but the article suggested this title card was from the 1993 laser disc release. Chances are pretty good that when the film was “restored” or transferred, they took a single good frame from the title section of the film, and just duplicated that for the title section of the transfer. Thus the lack of light variance as in the rest of the cartoon.

    Also note that while student projects suggest there may be something to Brown’s argument, the court has already ruled against him in a similar case.

  • http://beesbuzz.biz/ fluffy

    Also how long will people keep on repeating the incorrect belief that Steamboat Willie was the first synchronized-sound cartoon?

  • http://socata.net Dana Gabbard

    Trademark and copyright are complicated. As noted in the article the Disney lawyers are totally capable of making conflicting arguments in differing circumstances to their benefit. Remember, I used to publish a fanzine devoted to Disney and found dealing with them at times was challenging.

    Just read Jim Korkis’s account of what happened when an attempt was made to reprint early Mickey strips whose copyrights had not been maintained:

    http://jimhillmedia.com/blogs/jim_korkis/archive/2003/09/09/1064.aspx

    Chuck R. is right. Disney’s lawyers didn’t blink at taking $20,000 from Mr. Brown despite his being unemployed and on disability. The Disney lawyers are not people to mess with.

  • Keith Bryant

    This makes me think about all the times that I saw Disney character T-shirts in Orlando. The shirts and other merchandise available in WDW clearly have “Walt Disney World” printed on them. The Disney character merchandise in the souvenir shops around town have “Florida” printed. I often wondered how much of the souvenir shop merchandise was counterfeit.

  • SR Das

    Interestingly enough, Warner Bros had made a blatant Mickey ripoff during the Harman-Ising era called “Foxy.” He only appeared in 3 cartoons, but subsequently appeared in the Tiny Toons TV series, albeit redesigned to deter Disney lawyers.

  • Charles V.

    Bill, the 1993 laser disc used a frame from the redrawn titles done in the early 1970′s for a rare theatrical release of a selection of old black and white Disney Mickey Mouse shorts. The article mentions this title was snagged from the laser disc. The question remains what did the original 1928 title look like? Was it identical in its verbal data to the example shown in the article/on the disc? Until someone digs up the original title, we don’t know.

  • http://daryl-rhystaylor.blogspot.com Daryl T

    Why is this guy fighting so hard to get Mickey into the public domain. Leave the mouse alone.

  • http://www.cartoonresearch.com/gerstein David Gerstein

    Charles V., the early 1970s rerelease you spoke of did not include STEAMBOAT WILLIE. The cartoons rereleased were all 1932-34 titles: SHANGHAIED, TOUCHDOWN MICKEY, TWO-GUN MICKEY, THE MAIL PILOT, BUILDING A BUILDING, and MICKEY’S GOOD DEED. They were given new title cards that resembled a close tracing of the 1932-34 United Artists card—minus the UA credit, and plus extra space on the top and bottom (in case theatres wished to crop the image for widescreen).

    I’ve done a lot of research into STEAMBOAT WILLIE, and the title card we see on that today seems to have been on the film as early as a 1930s rerelease. In design, it flawlessly matches the cards of 1929 shorts that I’ve seen in first-run prints (or first-generation dupes therefrom).
    A 1950s print that ran in continuous loop at Disneyland for many years had this title card flickering like the rest of the print. So did a different, definitely earlier nitrate print that was used as a Disney Channel source in the 1980s (easy to tell 1950s from earlier: the earlier prints kept in the scene of Mickey using mama pig as an accordion, with her nipples as the buttons).

    As to the article referenced and Mickey’s public domain status: many people seem to think that if a character’s first cartoons are PD, the character him/herself is effectively PD as well. Were this true, the Felix the Cat trademark wouldn’t be live today. It is.
    Many major cartoon characters are protected as trademarks irrespective of the status of their individual cartoons, and the trademarks remain in force as long as the studio continues to exploit the character. STEAMBOAT WILLIE becoming PD, as it almost did a few years ago prior to law being changed, would have allowed $1 drug-store DVDs to include STEAMBOAT WILLIE, but it would not have allowed those DVDs’ manufacturers to draw up new Mickey art for the DVD covers; the trademark on Mickey would have prevented that.

    Some studios actively hold trademarks on multiple models of their characters in the cases where major design changes have taken place. Of course, the studios then have to reuse those old models somehow to keep the trademarks live. This is why, though the majority of Mickey merchandise features either the modern Mickey or the “retro” 1931 model, some items use the later 1930s design or even the original Felixlike, 1928 PLANE CRAZY design.
    Disney has to be able to prove in a court of law that they’re still actively using every version on which they hold a trademark. Regardez: http://tinyurl.com/5vt9jh

  • http://robcatview.blogspot.com robcat2075

    The notion that you could knock-off a Disney product and be in the clear just by saying “It’s not a Disney product” seems pretty far-fetched.

  • http://classicparamountcartoons.blogspot.com ParamountCartoons

    I think I have the answer to the Steamboat Willie original title, allthough I never saw it. The copyright owner they proably omitted is Columbia Pictures.

  • Harv

    Well, then, David, those 1928 sow teats from “Steamboat Willie” ought to be in the clear. Disney hasn’t kept them live with any merch at all. What a missed opportunity!

  • Paul N

    Thanks David. It’s refreshing to see someone post who isn’t basing their comments on a single newspaper article.

  • http://www.cartoonresearch.com/gerstein David Gerstein

    ParamountCartoons: Sorry. When Columbia, distributor from 1930, reissued the earlier Celebrity Pictures Mickey shorts, they gave them a new (if derivative) title card design: http://tinyurl.com/4jahza
    Those ugly Art Deco mice make it easy to tell a Columbia rerelease. So the STEAMBOAT WILLIE card we see today is an authentic Celebrity, not a Columbia, and would never have included a Columbia tag.

    Damn, those copied mice on the Columbia card look more like weasels. Mickey Weasel. Nah, it’ll never work.

  • Danny R. Santos

    I copyright all my creations, because some people are just to dumb to create their own characters, I agree with Floyd you really “DON’T” want to mess with Disney.

  • Michael Grabowski

    I’m all for Mickey (and all the other classic cartoon characters and their cartoons) entering the public domain somehow, someday, but I’d hate for it to be because of an ambiguous original title card whose exact wording may no longer be known. That doesn’t exactly seem fair and square to me.

  • http://tsutpen.blogspot.com Stephen

    I just love the fact that that pro-PD forces are named “Brown” and “Van Pelt”.

  • http://inkwellimagesink.com Ray Pointer

    The article confuses the issue of the copyright status of certain films with the image of the character as a copyrighted “design” and most of all a trademark. What is most puzzling is the sector of wishful thinkers who want to see MICKEY MOUSE as a Public Domain piece. These people that seem to include learned “experts” in intellectual law continue to “wish upon a star” while they fail to give sight to the big picture-MICKEY MOUSE is an international trademark. The big question is WHY do some people want MICKEY MOUSE to be PD, and what do THEY gain by this being so?

  • zavkram

    It’s astounding when you consider that all Disney had to do was place his name either right before or immediately after the copyright notice.

    Then again, we know that Walt and Roy Disney had difficulty deciding on just what to call themselves, a partnership or a corporation… maybe this was the reason for the ambiguity in those early title-cards. They obviously were aware that they were required to have a copyright notice on the title-cards; but because they still hadn’t decided on what to call themselves they simply went with a copyright date, hoping no one would notice or care enough (back then) to challenge it in court.

    This is slightly OT I know… but I’m suddenly reminded of that episode of “The Simpsons”; in which the original creator of “Itchy and Scratchy” sues Roger Meyers Jr. over copyright infringement and is awarded full rights to the characters and their films. I forget the name of the animator-turned-hobo, but I think that he was voiced by none other than Kirk Douglas.

    A classic episode… I especially liked the faux “vintage” Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, “Steamboat Itchy”. If only Disney had come up with characters like “Manic Mailman” or “Flatulant Fox”!

  • http://samgreenfield.com/log Sam Greenfield

    @Ray Pointer: “The big question is WHY do some people want MICKEY MOUSE to be PD, and what do THEY gain by this being so?”

    The issue is that companies like Disney have been lobbying to extend copyright repeatedly to the point of absurdity. Copyright is a balance between rewarding creativity and advancing society. If we allow a small group of companies to control the ideas in society, there is a side effect of stifling the society as a whole.

    Of all companies, Disney should recognize the value in being able to take advantage of public domain characters. If not for that right, we would have never seen movies like Cinderella.

  • zavkram

    Speaking of Mickey “knock-offs”, I wonder what the Disney Lawyers would make of this:

    http://forum.bcdb.com/forum/gforum.cgi?do=post_view&post=91461

  • http://www.americanelf.com James Kochalka

    What do we gain by allowing Mickey Mouse to become public domain? Mickey Mouse is an icon with great meaning for all Americans (and indeed for much of the world). If artists are not able to reinterpret our great icons through new creative works, society loses a powerful tool of self-examination. This contributes to the stagnation of society and stunts our potential growth. Really, it’s quite criminal that Walt Disney keeps getting congress to rewrite the copyright law just to extend their claims. Copyright is simply not meant to last this long, and they’re hurting all of us.

  • amid

    James – You summarized it far more elegantly than I ever could. The hypocrisy of a company like Disney, which based its first feature Snow White on a public domain story, to suppress copyright law is unfortunate. It’s important for all of us to fight against the unfairness of these laws that inhibit creativity.

  • http://inkwellimagesink.com Ray Pointer

    There is a great significance between folk tales that are among cultures. These are Public Domain. Even the tales of Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm are in the Public Domain in European culture, free for invidivual interpretation. THE WIZARD OF OZ is another such example in American folklore as it also is in the Public Domain, and has been interpreted many times in the past century.

    The case for Mickey Mouse is entirely different. What further interpretation could be done that would enhance society with this character that is so solidly established with the Disney legacy? If interpretation is the issue, then come up with something original and forget about expoiting something that is already established?

  • amid

    Ray – In your comment, you reason that Wizard of Oz should be PD because it’s American folklore. The only problem is that it’s not folklore that has been handed down from generation to generation. It’s the creation by one individual – L. Frank Baum.

    The many adaptations of it in the first half of the 20th century were all because it was licensed by the Baums, first for a feature in 1925, then to Ted Esbaugh for an animated cartoon, and later to MGM for their famous version.

    True, the property has been in public domain since 1956. But that’s because Baum’s copyright on the property expired according to the copyright laws of the time. The 1909 law allowed works to be copyrighted for a period of 28 years from the date of publication, renewable once for a second 28-year term, hence Wizard of Oz’s 1900-1956 copyright.

    The problem is that those copyright terms have been subsequently revised, and whereas it was once 56 years max, it is now 105 years max for many new creations. These terms are prohibitive particularly for the rapid-fire pace of today’s culture. All great ideas come from earlier great ideas, and locking away our collective creative past will lead to cultural stagnation, if it hasn’t already.

    • http://www.inkwellimagesink.com Ray Pointer

      You twist the issue, Amid. THE WIZARD OF OZ is an American Classic, that has passed into the Public Domain due to age and the expiration of its copyrights, as we know. By its being over 100 years old, it has become an American institution, and is also part of our folklore due to the work lf L.Frank Baum-a fact I a most acquitely aware of. As such, it is considered “America’s Fairytale.” This is only another such example of a Public Domain work that has become free for individual interpretation. MICKEY MOUSE is yet another “animal.”

  • Chuck R.

    “If artists are not able to reinterpret our great icons through new creative works, society loses a powerful tool of self-examination.”

    What great creative works are we talking about? Calvin pee-ing on Ford logos? Mickey giving “Iran” the middle finger? Give me a break.

    Ray is exactly right. Society is better served when copyright laws give a financial incentive to actually create something. Think what you like about Disney and WB. They’re taking good care of the Mouse and Rabbit (Disney Treasures, Golden Collection) If these cartoons were in the public domain, do you think the films would get the restorations they’ve been getting?

  • amid

    Chuck: Comments like yours are disheartening and exhibit a profound lack of understanding about the issues at stake. As an artist, you more than anybody should understand the value of public domain.

    This is more about Calvin peeing on a logo. How do artists use public domain? An excerpt from this article:

    Where would Disney be without the Brothers Grimm, Victor Hugo, Hans Christian Anderson, Kipling, or classical mythology? (It would be short a couple of animated features.) Where would Aaron Copland have been without American folk songs? Picasso without African art? Even Duchamp without his urinal? Public domain appropriators, one and all…West Side Story emerges from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; Amadeus emerges from the music of Mozart and Salieri.

  • Chuck R.

    You’re kidding, right?

    Without the public domain, I guess Disney would be relegated to homegrown stories like Dumbo, The Lion King, and Lilo and Stitch (Oh the horror) or they’d have to buy properties like Mary Poppins, and 101 Dalmatians. (How will they ever make their money back?!) Come on, if a huge multimedia conglomerate needs public domain stories to make films, they shouldn’t be in business.

    Mickey Mouse is a trademark character for the company that bears its creator’s name. The Disney Co. maintains and protects this image the way Walt would. People who love Mickey are happy with him where he is. It’s the cynics and Disney haters that want him to enter public domain and trashed like the examples I’ve stated.

    We will never run out of public domain properties. Silly urban legends are being created every day and mined by Hollywood as we speak. There’s also current events that form the basis for stories that everyone recognizes.

    As an artist, I’m very sensitive to copyright issues and creator’s rights. You yourself always remind artists of the importance of protecting their creations. Thanks for that, but you can’t pick and choose which IP holders are worthy and which are not. if a fatcat like Disney can’t protect it’s properties, what chance do the rest of us have? Disney is doing all of us creatives a favor by defining and defending copyright.

  • http://inkwellimagesink.com Ray Pointer

    Amid: Not to beat the horse to death, but you are indeed mistaken about THE WIZARD OF OZ as literature. The story is indeed in the Public Domain, which is why so many recent animated versions have been produced, no mater how good or bad. But the sequel books are owned by Disney.

    American “Folklore” is Davy Crocket, which Disney has exploited because it is a PD subject, but not a corporate trademark such as MICKEY MOUSE. The same with POCAHONTAS. Other American Historical figures fall into “folklore as well. The disctinction here again is characters of fairy tales, classic literature, and cultural folklore, and The Bible are open to indivivual interepretation since these stories have emenated among the people and not from a corporation. While Disney has created its interpretation of SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA, and SLEEPING BEAUTY to name but a few,
    their “interpretations” are certainly their own property, but this does not make them sole owners of the concept of the stories and star characters, only their versions of them. This is THE major difference between their exploiting Public Domain material and their control over their own intellectual properties, which include MICKEY MOUSE.

    MICKEY MOUSE is a creation and property of a corporation, not of the culture, and in the process has been embraced by world culture instead of originating directly from the culture itself. He is not “folklore,” a Fairy Tale, or classic literature. He is one such example of “manufactured” culture over culture that originates among the people over generations. In this regard, MICKEY MOUSE is a “symbol” of international bonding of all world cultures who appreciate the entertainment value the figure represents. And in that regard, MICKEY MOUSE is indeed a trademark that represent this.

  • amid

    Ray: You seem to be the missing point again:

    1.) The Wizard of Oz has TURNED into folklore because it fell into public domain in 1956. It was at one time a copyrighted property and licensed by its creator throughout the first half of the 20th century.

    2.) Like Mickey Mouse, Wizard of Oz was the creation of an individual/company, not a piece of ‘folklore’ which has emanated through the people

    3.) You make the point EXACTLY about why long-term copyright is not a good thing. When a copyrighted piece like Wizard of Oz falls into the public domain, it is allowed to be turned into folklore and interpreted by different people. Mickey will also become a part of American folklore when its copyright finally expires. Unfortunately, they keep trying to revise copyright laws from making this happening.

  • http://inkwellimagesink.com Ray Pointer

    My reference to the WIZARD OF OZ as “folklore” was a mischoice of words when I was making comparisons to European fairy tales. THE WIZARD OF OZ is considered “America’s Great Fairy Tale.” In this, the telling of its history for me is “preaching to the choir.” But for all others reading this discussion, it is worth considering.

    Besides the stories such as Paul Bunyon, Johnnie Appleseed, Davy Crocket,etc. which have been “interpreted” and exploited by Disney,
    other American literary classics such as TOM SAWYER and HUCKLEBERRY FINN, as well as other Mark Twain works are also in the Public Domain, available for individual interpretation, as they also have pased into our collective “folklore.”

    According to definition, “folklore” is the traditional beliefs, sayings, and legends of a people. It has been my generation who has helped make THE WIZARD OF OZ part of American folklore in the last 50 years since it is now considered a “tradition” supported by the annual television showings of the classic 1939 film. So in this respect, we are in agreement that in this way it has become “folklore.” But the diference I see is the way such folklore, or icons are created and represented.

    Traditional myths and legends were passed along orally. With the coming of the publishing industry, the issue of an “industrialied” element enters the picture, and this is the beginning of what we are battling over in the 21st century under the name of “intellectual property.”

    As motion pictures started to gain respect and acceptance, their value was considered in the same manner as literature, and accordingly, copyrights were applied to these works. What becomes
    complicated is recognizing the manner of the “creation.” The story and content of the film was one sort of consideration for protection of ownership by the “creator.” In the cases of stories that are in the Public Domain, the content and their characters are part of that Public Domain piece. These characters were never established as trademarks or marketing tools per se.

    The creation of cartoon characters, while an element of a film under copyright or in the Public Domain becomes a different issue. In the case of MICKEY MOUSE, once again, he has been established as a marketing comodity and a trademark that represents a corporation.
    He is not a “legend” or “folklore.” While the story behind his creator has become legendary, and has been interpreted by many people, his image and reputation is still under the control of the corporation that continues to bare his name. MICKEY MOUSE is not a “legend” or “folklore” subject to individual interpretation unless the intent is to remake those few PD cartoons and their stories, which not only is a sensless task, but beyond the intensions of those wishing to see MICKEY MOUSE enter the Publis Domain.

  • marbpl

    Interestingly enough, while Disney owned the rights to the post-WIZARD Oz series, they ultimately used only the two titles that were in PD at the time (MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ and OZMA OF OZ) in their 1985 RETURN TO OZ film. As it currently stands, all the Oz books by L. Frank Baum written from 1900-1920 have fallen into PD. The post-Baum books were beginning to lapse, but the 1998 Supreme Court decision nipped that in the bud. See http://www.thewizardofoz.info/faq02.html#13 for more info.

  • http://[email protected] issy bitic

    do you know of a cartoon that i have called rapid fire mickey no info at all no trace google.another is called whirlwind mickey circa 1934. i know little whirlwind was released in 1942.mine is done by hollywood film enterprises both circa 1933 0r 1934. both of them no trace on google no sales exist of film.