Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie is soon to set sail one final time, and the journey will be a one-way trip. But his destination is still unknown, as copyright protection law is a many-splendored thing. And while some think of the loss of Steamboat Willie as nominal, true Disney fans understand how great a loss it actually is.
Disney is set to lose its copyright on Mickey Mouse in a few days, at which time the original version of Walt’s animated mouse will step into the vast unknown of the public domain.
At that time, Walt’s earliest iteration of the Mouse who started it all will be available for anyone and everyone to do with him as they please with little to no worries about copyright infringement. Even before Disney’s copyright expires, however, a new organization has been profiting from Mickey’s likeness, laying claim to Mickey and promising to at least “eat [Mickey] alive.”
Steamboat Willie is Born From Adversity
Thanks to a crooked producer named Charles Mintz at Universal Studios, one of Walt’s animated characters–Oswald the Lucky Rabbit–was stolen virtually out from under him. While Mintz was at it, he also wooed Walt’s animators to go to work for him at Universal, poaching them behind Walt’s back.
The only one of Walt’s animators to remain loyal to him was Ub Iwerks. The loss of his animators and his star character was a shock to Walt. But he knew the thing to do was to stay creative. Though he had suffered quite a blow, Walt began sketching. But this time, he didn’t draw a rabbit. And Felix the Cat was the animated feline of the times. So Walt eventually sketched out a mouse–a little mouse with a curl in his tail and wearing a pair of shorts.
Walt called him Mortimer. But Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife, felt otherwise, so she named him Mickey.
Every Aspect of Walt Disney’s Career Hinged on a Black-and-White Whistling Mouse
The creation of Steamboat Willie by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks wasn’t only the answer to the problem that presented itself when a producer at Universal Studios stole the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character from Walt through a contract loophole. According to Becky Cline, director of the Walt Disney Archives, the creation of Steamboat Willie, Walt’s first iteration of Mickey Mouse, served as the springboard for the rest of Walt Disney’s dynamic and successful career.
“All of the wonderful things that followed in Walt’s own career were founded upon the first screening of a simple little mouse whistling his way into the hearts of audiences all over the world,” Cline said.
She continued, saying that Mickey is more than just a company mascot. Rather, he’s a work of art and a symbol. Cline says Mickey is also a “beloved everyman.”
“When asked why Mickey was so popular, Walt once said, ‘When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human, and that is the secret of his popularity,’” she added. “He struggles with life as we all do but uses his innate sense of optimism to overcome all obstacles and has a wonderful time while doing so. He is terrifically appealing because of that optimistic, sunny outlook, and that optimism is sorely needed in the times we are living in today.”
“Mickey Mouse is, to me, a logo of independence,” Walt also said of Mickey. “He was a way to an end of all the miseries.”
Mickey Mouse, of course, began as a little steamboat captain, as seen in Steamboat Willie, which debuted in 1928 and was the first and only animated short to feature sound.
Steamboat Willie Was an Instant Hit
Walt Disney’s Midas touch was in effect throughout his career. It wasn’t often that Walt had an idea for something that didn’t garner returns. Steamboat Willie was no exception.
Two weeks after Walt Disney released his animated short Steamboat Willie, audience demand for the picture was so high that Walt re-released it at the world’s largest theater–the Roxy in New York. Critics arrived in droves to marvel at the animated short–the first in the world to include sound, something the Modern Museum of Art describes as being responsible for “launching an empire:”
Per the Modern Museum of Art:
Disney’s Steamboat Willie is a landmark in the history of animation. The first film starring Mickey Mouse to be released with synchronized sound, it threw silent animation into obsolescence and launched an empire. Previously, there had been little to distinguish Disney’s cartoons from those of its competitors.
…Critics came to see Mickey Mouse as a blend of several ubiquitous cinematic figures: Charlie Chaplin, in his championing of the underdog; the energetic Douglas Fairbanks, in his rascally, adventurous spirit; and the illustrious dancer Fred Astaire, in his grace and seeming freedom from gravity’s laws.
Steamboat Willie’s Departure to the Public Domain
On January 1, 2024, Steamboat Willie will set sail for the great unknown, otherwise known as the public domain. Though Disney worked tirelessly to extend its rights to Mickey the last time it faced a copyright expiration, there’s no indication that the company has done so this time.
And though it’s only the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse that will sail off into the public domain, the loss is still a big one for The Walt Disney Company, as Steamboat Willie is the version of Mickey that, in many ways, set Walt Disney’s career into motion, and for diehard fans of Walt Disney, the loss is very great indeed.