As the year 2024 draws closer, Disney fans have become increasingly vocal and concerned about The Walt Disney Company losing the rights to Mickey Mouse. But Disney has already lost almost 95% of the classic animation material from its feature films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi, and no amount of lobbying Congress could have stopped the loss.
One of the earliest versions of Disney’s Mickey Mouse is set to enter the public domain on January 1, 2024, ending a 96-year-long copyright held by the entertainment giant since Mickey’s first cartoon, Steamboat Willie, debuted in 1928. At that time, Mickey’s copyright was valid for 28 years, with the option for Disney to extend it for an additional 28 years, meaning that the original copyright for the Steamboat Willie character was set to enter the public domain at the end of 1983. Facing a loss of ownership, Disney sprang into action to save the beloved mouse from life outside The Walt Disney Company.
Disney wasted no time, bypassing any potential riff-raff and going directly to the United States government for help, lobbying Congress in an effort to hold on to Mickey a little longer. Whether federal lawmakers revered Disney as an untouchable entertainment powerhouse or the American people had elected a Congress full of Mickey fans, we’ll never know, but Congress happily extended Disney’s copyright by enacting the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” or, as it is formally known, the Copyright Term Extension Act.
Copyrights don’t last forever, though, and when the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2024, Disney will be forced to say farewell to Steamboat Willie–though his trademark will remain.
But while there may still be some measure of hope for Mickey, there’s no hope for a loss of Disney property that has already occurred–one that never made the headlines as Steamboat Willie did. The Walt Disney Company has already suffered a tragic loss of some of its intellectual property, and the company has no one to blame but its very own animators.
In the 1930s and 1940s, when Walt Disney’s animators were tasked with hand-drawing the characters and backgrounds for some of the studio’s most beloved animated films, they embraced their work with great passion and dedication. They apparently enjoyed their work and had lots of fun on the clock. Back then, hand-drawn animation was a lengthy, labor-intensive process, but it was business as usual for those in that line of work. Because of this, animators were often very carefree–and sometimes careless–when it came to the fragile vintage art they were creating.
Arthur Stevens, a long-time Disney animator and director who worked on classic Disney animated films The Rescuers (1977), The Fox and the Hound (1981), and The Black Cauldron (1985), once explained that animators used to toss finished animation canvases on the floor when they were finished with them. Some animators even used the canvases to slide around on the floors. While the practice might have been good for team-building, it was entirely destructive for the artwork itself.
It created multiple problems for the studio as well. Over the years, the carelessness of Disney’s animators resulted in the loss of nearly 95% of Disney’s vintage animation material–a loss from which recovery is not possible. In an effort to prevent further losses, experts now employ preservation techniques to care for the remaining material. The goal is to lower the risk of further damage and loss of Disney’s treasured and priceless artwork.
Fortunately for Disney fans of every age, all of the films for which the animation material was lost are still available in some physical and digital formats and can be streamed on the Disney+ platform.