The Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse is due to enter the public domain in 2024. Victoria Schwartz, professor of law at Pepperdine’s Caruso School of Law, explains that the trademark Disney holds on the Steamboat Mickey might give the company some coverage when copyright law no longer can. Copyrights expire, but trademark protections can last indefinitely, providing their holders keep their registration up-to-date.
“If you watch any Disney movies recently (I have a toddler, so we watch a lot), you will notice that they open the film with a small clip from Steamboat Willie,” she writes over email. This keeps that version of Mickey connected to Disney in the public’s mind. Still, this protection is more limited: People will still be able to use that first Mickey Mouse, as long as their interpretation cannot be construed to be Disney’s. (See also: Frake-Waterfield and his Micheal Myers-sized Pooh.)
Mickey, and Disney, aren’t the only ones facing a ticking clock. Bugs Bunny, Batman, and Superman—all currently held by Warner Bros.—will pass into the public domain in the coming decades. But early Superman could only “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” not fly. A legal battle is likely forthcoming. “Aspects of the Bugs Bunny, Batman, and Superman characters that were added later would remain protected, and if someone took those aspects I expect [Warner Bros.] would sue,” says Schwartz.
Eventually, though, these works need to enter the public domain. If their original makers are no longer benefiting, it’s in the public interest to let other creators use them. “If you think about the original term, it was to provide incentives for authors. So the author could enjoy that protection for 14 years,” says Harris. “Now we’re saying even after the entire lifespan of the author, we’re going to give an additional 70 years.” That has got to be long enough, he says.
Fifty years from now, scores of popular characters should all look very different, just as Pooh may for those who have seen Blood and Honey. The inordinate length of modern copyright protection has ensured that no character created in this lifetime will pass into the public domain, but the stream of expiring copyrights at least lets artists iterate on the work of previous generations. “It becomes so much more of a rich world for budding filmmakers, and budding artists, to be able to leverage and use these very well-known IPs and characters to build up their career,” says Frake-Waterfield.
Blood and Honey cost less than $100,000 to make, but it brought in more than $4 million in its limited release. Additional cash, Frake-Waterfield hopes, will allow him to create higher-quality future installments—flaunting bloodier VFX—in his public domain cinematic universe. And he’d like to work with characters still covered by copyright too. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they’re these half-human, half-turtles who live in the sewer.” he says. “You can easily twist that into horror.” But first: Bambi: The Reckoning.