**This post contains images that may be upsetting to some. Viewer discretion is advised.
The Walt Disney Company’s rights to Mickey Mouse are nearing their expiration, and online users are using AI to get a headstart on reimaging Walt’s favorite mouse in a world outside of Disney, and, as you might imagine, not all of the outcomes have been magical.
Mickey Mouse Has Faced Certain Exile Before
Disney is set to lose its copyright on Mickey Mouse in a few short months. As it stands, at 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2024, the original version of Walt’s animated mouse will step into the vast unknown of the public domain for anyone and everyone to do with him as they please. And for the first time, there will be no worries about copyright infringement.
One organization isn’t waiting for Disney’s copyright to expire and devised a way to begin profiting from Steamboat Willie’s eventual demise in 2021–and all without infringing on the copyright still in place now.
The Walt Disney Company is facing the expiration of its copyright on Mickey Mouse–specifically the 1928 original Mickey Mouse iteration of the fan-favorite iconic character known as Steamboat Willie, featured in an animated short by the same name. But this isn’t the first time the whistling steamer skipper has gotten dangerously close to the end of Disney’s copyright.
Disney Battles It Out to Keep Steamboat Willie
When Steamboat Willie was created in 1928, United States copyright law allowed an entity to own the copyright of intellectual property for 28 years. At the end of that time, the entity had the ability to automatically extend its copyright for an additional 28 years.
Disney took full advantage of that extension with Steamboat Willie, but in the 1980s, as the company’s rights approached a firm expiration date, Disney immediately began to lobby Congress to make legislative changes that would allow Mickey to stay home a little longer. In perhaps the only example of the United States Congress being likened to Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, legislators conceded, granting Disney’s wish and completely overhauling laws associated with the parameters of copyright expiration.
When all the dust had settled, Disney was granted another major extension of its copyrights to Steamboat Willie–this time, until January 1, 2024–thanks to the U.S. Copyright Term Extension Act, or, as it became more commonly known, the Mickey Mouse Copyright Protection Act.
No 11th Hour Heroics to Save Mickey This Time
As only weeks remain before Walt’s beloved Steamboat Willie version of Mickey will set sail for the vast and unknown public domain, it’s unclear whether the company intends to attempt to secure another extension of its copyright. There’s nothing to suggest that Disney has taken any steps to protect Steamboat Willie.
If there were such a thing as a “stay of copyright,” and if it could be filed in time to avoid the January 2024 copyright expiration, optimism about such a request from Disney being met with grace and benevolence by the federal government is fading as tensions remain high among some lawmakers who haven’t forgotten Disney’s ongoing feud with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL).
But even if The Walt Disney Company has decided to give up the fight for Steamboat Willie, some issues that surfaced this week make it clear: some type of protection should be in place for intellectual property once it relocates to the public domain–especially when that property is of a family-friendly nature.
Does Microsoft Own the Rights to Mickey Mouse?
Enter Microsoft’s new Bing Image created, which debuted on March 21, 2023, giving users a relatively simple way to use AI to create images of all kinds.
The tech company’s image-creation feature, powered by technology from OpenAI, was added to the Bing search engine and the Microsoft Edge web browser, allowing users to create images based on text prompts.
Earlier this month, however, Microsoft upped its game with the addition of DALL-E 3, not to be confused with Disney/PIXAR’s WALL-E, to its Bing Image Generator. In an announcement on October 3, the tech giant said that the DALL-E 3 model is now available to every user within Microsoft’s Bing Chat and at Bing.com/Create.
According to Microsoft, the DALL-E 3 model, developed by OpenAI, features the latest in text-to-image capabilities and “delivers enhancements that improve the overall quality and detail of images, along with greater accuracy for human hands, faces, and text in images.” The tech company applauded the advancements in image-generating technology and said that the Microsoft Bing Image Creator is “helping inspire people’s creativity.”
But this week, some people used Microsoft’s new technology along with their “creativity” to generate some very disturbing and unsettling images involving Mickey Mouse–images that raise questions about the legalities surrounding the use of copyrighted property when AI is holding the pen and pencil and questions about whether it’s even possible to ensure AI is used responsibly.
DALL-E3: Terrifyingly Realistic + Undeniably Disturbing
The DALL-E 3 model is reportedly a breakthrough in AI image-generating technology, as it runs on a deep neural network. For everyone who works somewhere other than Microsoft, a deep neural network refers to a multi-level computer system modeled after the human brain and nervous system. The DALL-E 3 neural network is capable of producing very realistic images based on text prompts that use natural language.
In some ways, the technology is a work in progress. The image below was generated with the text prompt “Walter Elias Disney.”
While it’s clear that the generator has been programmed with copious amounts of information about the genius visionary, it struggled to create an image that actually looks like the late Walt Disney. The image below was generated with the same prompt–“Walter Elias Disney”–but it seems to be a combination of Walt Disney and Disney CEO Bob Iger.
It’s important to note that Disney has not yet lost the copyright to any version of the Mickey Mouse character, but Microsoft’s newest AI image generator is capable of creating an endless number of images that feature the beloved Disney character. All a user has to do is type the prompt “Mickey Mouse.”
And when those images include sensitive, racist, offensive, terroristic, or dishonest in nature, what can Disney and other IP owners do? Further, what actions should be taken against the developers of this technology, especially as it seems to allow a myriad of potentially sensitive topics to be entered as a prompt for the creation of sometimes shocking imagery that is not only offensive, but disturbing and terrifying as well.
We’re not talking about an AI image of Mickey Mouse with fangs.
The image below has made its way onto the world wide web. Then again, that’s where it was created in the first place. And, as with many things found online, the image was shared.
The terrifying and disturbing image depicts Mickey Mouse sitting in the cockpit of an airliner. He’s holding a gun as he looks back at the viewfinder and smiles. Through the cockpit windows, the visage of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center ablaze is horrifying, and the image of yet another plane heading for the towers is simply terroristic in nature.
OpenAI celebrates the photorealism in its newly-launched DALL-E 3 technology, but in imagery like this, that realism is the most disturbing element.
Though it’s not clear who created the image, Futurism.com reports that the image was made with Microsoft Bing’s Image Creator powered by OpenAI’s DALL-E 3 generator. Mickey Mouse wasn’t the only villain depicted in a series of disturbing images associated with the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001. Additional images, likely created by the same user or users, also feature SpongeBob Squarepants at the controls of a commercial airliner, as well as Nintendo’s Kirby.
As of the time of this publication, Disney has made no comment about the image, despite being contacted for a response as it pertains to the nature of the image as well as the use of Disney’s most recognizable IP and character of all time in the image. If Microsoft’s Bing Image Creator is able to generator images of Mickey Mouse in response to a user simply entering his name in a prompt, it’s quite likely that the datasets within the Microsoft application contain material that is copyrighted as well.
After all, Mickey hasn’t entered the public domain, and even if Disney sits quietly while its copyright expires on January 1, 2024, it will still only be Steamboat Willie that has entered the public domain.
Microsoft Promises Content Moderation
It’s important to note that since the images were first shared, Microsoft appears to have enhanced its content blocker. Users that type “twin towers” or “World Trade Center” give a message that states that the subject may be against Microsoft’s content policy, and the image creator will not generate images from that prompt.
Per Microsoft, its content moderation system “removes any images that are harmful or inappropriate.” Further, Microsoft states the following:
We have trained our system to follow our terms of service and community guidelines and to avoid images that contain nudity, violence, hate speech, or illegal activities.
Here’s hoping AI technology will become even better equipped to block the creation of images that are harmful and violent in nature. But if history tells us anything, it’s that for those who desperately want to bend the rules, find the loopholes, and cheat the system, the old saying really is true: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”