It seems the ball is in Disney’s lawyers’ court to protect the world’s most beloved and iconic character. But is it true that Disney could really lose its rights over Mickey Mouse? John Oliver on his HBO late-night show, Last Week Tonight, challenged the Walt Disney Company with his willingness to simply take Mickey Mouse for his own.
According to Intellectual Property Law, the short answer is yes. The copyright on Mickey Mouse will expire just next year in 2024, 95 years after his first appearance, sending him to the public domain. This copyright applies explicitly to the very first iteration of Mickey Mouse in his animation debut, Steamboat Willie (1928). This black and white hand-drawn cartoon introduces Mickey with a tall white cap and without the white gloves that have become his modern uniform.
Deadline shared Oliver’s comments that Disney’s use of Steamboat Willie in attachment to the Walt Disney Animation Studios logo is an attempt to circumvent the expiring copyright, claiming the image as a trademark associated with their brand. While no one can argue that Mickey Mouse and the Disney Company are inseparable, there remains a legal gray area undoubtedly about to be explored.
For example, Oliver mentions that other classic characters associated with the Walt Disney Company have already fallen victim to copyright expiration. At the start of 2022, Christopher Robin’s iconic friends entered the public domain. This includes Tigger, Piglet, Rabbit, and Eeyore, but Oliver cites a specific example where Winnie the Pooh himself is the murderous villain in what seems to be an indie horror flick. The film is titled Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.
Know for his show’s wild antics, John Oliver invited Steamboat Willie as a new character onto his show. While immediately recognizable, Mickey tested some new Last-Week-Tonight style catchphrases as he and Oliver wondered aloud where Mickey Mouse’s iconic voice fell on the copyright spectrum.
Oliver argued that, while legally Steamboat Willie will be public domain, there will still be considerable risk in using him for “new and interesting” things. A risk that clearly thrilled Oliver, as he happily called a Steamboat Willie mascot onto the stage and offered to hire him out for events.
John Oliver’s actions dared the Walt Disney Company to respond. He questioned if Disney would do anything in the Mickey Mouse copyright arena, and if so, what? Summing up the copyright drama thematically, Mickey Mouse says, “I guess you’ll find out,” to which Oliver giggles, “Yea! I guess we will!”