Steamboat Willie Reimagined (and some Dos and Don’ts if you plan to create your own)

The past week has seen a big fuss in the animation and comics communities over the expiration of the copyright of early versions of Mickey Mouse, meaning that after 96 years, his first three shorts, including Steamboat Willie, originally animated for the most part by Ub Iwerks, are now public domain and free for anyone to use (although the added soundtracks to the first two are still under copyright in the United States until next year).

The change in copyright came on 1st January 2024, Public Domain Day. Works from 1928 are open to all, as are sound recordings from 1923. Find out what else is now in the US Public Domain, including DH Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the original version of A.A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner, and the film, The Man Who Laughs, directed by Paul Leni, which inspired Batman villain, The Joker, here.

The “Steamboat Willie” version of the mouse was black and white, had long skinny appendages with no gloves on his hands, didn’t speak and had solid black eyes. Disney still hold the copyright to all other versions and still retains the Mickey Mouse trademark. We can assure you, Disney has the Mouse very well protected and that their lawyers are sitting there, quietly waiting for someone to get out of line…

Here’s just a few of the homages posted by various creators…

Steamboat Willie by Dave Alvarez

Steamboat Willie by Dave Alvarez

Steamboat Willie by Francesco Francavilla

Steamboat Willie by B11Mech

Sailor Man Mickey by Meech Doodle

Steamboat Willie by Lew Stringer

Steamboat Willie by Lew Stringer

Steamboat Willie by Dave Windett

Steamboat Willie by Dave Windett

Mickey Mouse Trademark and Copyright – Dos and Don’ts

Mickey Mouse Trademark and Copyright - Dos and Donts

Want to Draw your own version of “Steamboat Willie”? Here’s a quick guide to Dos and Dont’s…

What’s in the public domain?

As Ryan Holmberg notes here as part of a useful guide, the public domain includes not only works over which copyright has expired or never existed, but also uncopyrightable aspects of contemporary works – such as ideas, stock elements, and unoriginal material.

The 1928 “Steamboat Willie” version, and the “Plane Crazy” version, as well – Mickey in black and white, with no gloves.

So I can do anything I like with Mickey Mouse?

No. Disney still owns the character, and Mickey Mouse, both character and name, is still protected by the copyright laws (primarily protecting the rights of people who create literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other original works (like history tests, and software code), and trademark worldwide (which protects the use of a company’s name and its product names, brand identity (like logos), and slogans.

So… You can’t create another black and white mouse and call it Mickey Mouse, or market or sell the image of Mickey Mouse without a license from Disney.


The public does have the right to creatively use the first black-and-white Disney characters such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse strictly as they appear in the 1928 animated short film, Steamboat Willie, and the 1928 silent version of the short film, Plane Crazy – but not the aggregated later Mickey that, for example, appears in Fantasia.

Further Reading

Ryan Holmberg – Mickey Mouse and What is Public Domain?

Some thoughts on Steamboat Willie coming into the public domain, and the possibility of pirate Japanese Mickey Mouse becoming legal to reprint now, by Ryan Holmberg

NPR: ‘Steamboat Willie’ is now in the public domain. What does that mean for Mickey Mouse?

Find out what else is now in the US Public Domain here

Keep posted on what is in the Public Domain by following Public Domain Review

Categories: Animation, Comic Art, Comics, downthetubes News, Other Worlds

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