Taking the Mickey

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Mickey Mouse first appeared on screen in a 1928 cartoon called Steamboat Willie.

You have probably seen a clip of this early incarnation of black-eyed Mickey, wearing a cap and whistling, as he spins the ship’s wheel while grinning like a lunatic.

And from the moment the cartoon was produced the copyright belonged to Disney.

Or at least it did until the beginning of this year.

Because after 95 long years Mickey Mouse, as the character first appeared, is now in the public domain (the later, more famous Mickey, complete with white gloves, remains locked in the Disney castle vault).

In practical terms this means anyone can make their own version of Steamboat Willie, without worrying about receiving an unwelcome letter from Disney’s highly paid and very effective lawyers (so long as you do not imply that the new work is made by Disney).

But even with these remaining restrictions, as John Tapper explains, “It is still a welcome liberation, given that copyright terms have been lengthened so often for the rent-seeking estates of authors, songwriters and inventors. The US Copyright Act of 1790 permitted up to 28 years of exclusivity ‘to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts’ but it has been stretched, notoriously in the 1998 law dubbed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”

Great artists have always mined the works of their predecessors, from the source material for Shakespeare’s plays to the samples at the heart of hip hop.

And while it is right that creators are protected from those seeking to exploit their work, the length of time for which corporate copyright holders demand exclusivity seems excessive, driven more by greed than need.

As Betsy Rosenblatt, professor at Case Western Reserve University, told the FT, “Copyright is intended to encourage progress. We have to allow people to build on what came before, and not just allow, but encourage it.”

Inevitably there are now remakes of Steamboat Willie in the works.

Director Steven LaMorte is planning a comedy horror movie where a sadistic mouse will be let loose on a set of innocent passengers.

“Steamboat Willie has brought joy to generations,” LaMorte told Variety. “But beneath that cheerful exterior lies a potential for pure, unhinged terror. I can’t wait to unleash this twisted take on this beloved character to the world.”

It might not be to your taste, but I would argue it is good for us all that it can now exist.

This entry was posted in Brand, Brand Strategy, Brand Trends on by .

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