Disney Files Copyright Claim Against Fan Days After Steamboat Willie Hits the Public Domain

steamboat willie
Credit: Disney/Canva

On Thursday, a voice actor who doubles as a successful YouTuber with more than one million subscribers received a copyright claim on behalf of Disney after posting a video to his channel that included the Steamboat Willie animated short.

But the upload was four days after Disney lost the copyright to Walt’s first iteration of Mickey Mouse, leaving some to wonder whether it was an oversight on Disney’s part or a warning of things to come from the often litigious company.

steamboat willie

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Baker’s video included the entire eight-minute-long animated short from 1928, titled Steamboat Willie. As part of the video, Baker provides funny voice-overs, as well as sound effects throughout the short.

According to Baker, shortly after uploading the clip, he was notified that YouTube had demonetized the video, evidently on behalf of Disney. The video was also blocked for viewers in some areas as well.

Through December 31, 2023, nothing about Disney’s actions against Baker would have been cause for alarm, much less a news story. But Baker posted the video to his channel on January 4, days after the Steamboat Willie character officially sailed off into the wild blue public domain.

mickey minnie and tigger

Credit: Walt Disney Animation/Canva

Disney’s copyright on the Steamboat Willie iteration of Mickey Mouse expired as of 12:00 a.m. on January 1, 2024, meaning that Disney has no recourse against Baker’s YouTube video, even though it included the eight-minute-long animated short created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks in 1928.

Mickey Mouse co-creator Ub Iwerks has been mostly written out of Disney's  history. A new book gives the Kansas City animator his due.

Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks/Credit: Walt Disney Archives

Not only should Baker have been able to post the video to his YouTube channel, but it also should not have been blocked, and his monetization should not have been halted.

According to Mashable:

Baker could likely make a fair use or parody defense for his dubbed version of¬†Steamboat Willie, but as Duke University’s Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of law teaching intellectual property,¬†told Mashable this week, he doesn’t even need to make that argument. Public domain works are considered public property.¬†

“Reproducing and adapting the footage in whatever way you like is legit,” Jenkins told Mashable.

This particular story ends well, however. On Friday, January 5, The Walt Disney Company retracted its copyright claim against Baker and his YouTube channel. It isn’t clear whether the claim was an oversight on Disney’s part–perhaps part of an automated response when Disney’s copyrighted material is found online. If so, perhaps that automation had not yet come to a grinding halt.

steamboat willie

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Or could it be a warning of things to come? Could it be that Disney’s attorneys are looking for loopholes through which they can help the company keep Steamboat Willie for as long as possible? After all, attorneys for the company said in December that Disney would be taking the necessary steps to protect things like this.

Sadly, a horror video game and a horror film featuring Steamboat Willie have already been announced, and as of yet, Disney’s attorneys have made no public attempts to halt production of either. Only time will tell how Steamboat Willie’s sailing into the public domain will play out.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

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