Mickey Mouse Is Copyright-Free and the Internet Is Making the Most of It

Many people dream of building an enduring creative legacy, one which will outlast them and forever imprint itself into the annals of human culture. They rarely consider the drawbacks of such endurance: the moment when a prized icon enters the public domain. As cheekily anticipated by Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver in April of last year, the original Mickey Mouse character that debuted in Steamboat Willie 95 years ago has become a public property. As the mouse himself might say, “Oh boy!”

While Oliver got out ahead of the pack, testing the waters of the Disney litigation apparatus in his April 2023 episode (to seemingly no consequence, as noted in his year-end episode on December 17), now that the floodgates are officially open, the rest of the world is wasting no time.

“Not that the character hasn’t been parodied before — he has — but parodies are protected speech,” wrote Colonel Obyezyana of The People’s Cube. “This is different. Now you can use this version of Mickey Mouse as your logo, or mascot, or give him a different name and make him do unspeakable things or exploit his image by using him as a propaganda tool.”

“But why would anyone do such a thing?” he added, before sharing an image of Mickey Mouse as a Soviet prison guard character named Gulag Vasily. Indeed, why would anyone do something like that, or like making Steamboat Willie thicc as hell and twerking? I mean, besides the obvious.

The betrayal!

Then there’s a forthcoming Infestations Origins, an iteration of Infestation 88 game from Nightmare Forge Games that features a rodent infestation of the ex-Disney variety. As reporting from VICE notes, the game is problematic in numerous ways. Since it came out in 1928, I guess the best we can say here is that at least anyone whose childhood memories of Steamboat Willie could be legitimately ruined by this cultural appropriation has probably already had them ruined by living through World War II. Or by the deeply questionable values of Walt Disney itself — or the company’s highly criticized present-day donations to Israel as it continues its attack on Gaza.

Meanwhile, some people are getting downright existential about it all.

Move over, Ghostface, you are no longer the iconic image of contemporary horror. Now that Mickey’s fair game, he’s the leader of the club to murder you and me! The trailer has dropped for a teen slasher film set at a carnival, Mickey Mouse’s Trap, the entire premise of which revolves around the killer’s obsession with Steamboat Willie. Not only does this film hinge on the ridiculous notion that any current teenager on Earth has the slightest idea who Steamboat Willie is, but the trailer also reveals a dialogue bite straight from the original Scream movie, on the topic of “I’ll be right back” as a death sentence. Careful now! Scream is still legally actionable!

And while it is first-to-market, Mickey Mouse’s Trap no longer even has the distinction of being the only Steamboat Willie horror film. Director Steven LaMorte, the auteur behind the 2022 Grinch horror parody The Mean One, is slated to captain a new horror-comedy, featuring “a sadistic mouse” who will “torment a group of unsuspecting ferry passengers,” according to Bloody Disgusting. Let’s hope he whistles ominously before striking, just to leverage as much of the original source material as possible.

Speaking of which, a few canny denizens of the internet have realized that it’s not just the main mouse that’s open to public use and abuse. As Mat Brunet (@animat505) observed, all the animals that could be wound up like musical instruments in the cartoon are also public domain. Whatever you come up with there, it can’t actually be worse than the original.

And if you’re late to the Steamboat Willie game, don’t worry — there’s at least a dozen more precious childhood icons of yore heading into the public domain in the 2020s, including Betty Boop, Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein, and of course everyone’s favorite duck with rage issues, Donald Duck. Get ready!

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