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Horror filmmakers plan movie featuring Mickey Mouse as copyright expires

Horror filmmakers plan movie featuring Mickey Mouse as copyright expires
Posted at 1:20 PM, Jan 05, 2024

Disneyphiles, cover your eyes (and ears): The mighty Walt Disney Company lost its copyright to the earliest images of Mickey Mouse on Jan. 1, and he’s already showing up in some unexpected contexts.

Or perhaps “unpleasant” is the more appropriate word. At least two horror filmmakers plan to release films using the now-free-to-use likeness of Steamboat Willie, Mickey’s original incarnation.

According to U.S. law, copyright on certain works expires after 95 years. The “Steamboat Willie” cartoon short, directed by Walt Disney and his collaborator Ub Iwerks, is copyrighted 1929. That means 2024 marks Willie’s 95th year, and now anyone can use the image without paying fees or asking permission.

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In anticipation of the character’s freedom from copyright, creators started developing their ideas in advance. One British indie studio already released a trailer for a horror flick called “Mickey’s Mouse Trap.” The gaming site Steam also sells a horror game, “Infestation: Origins,” that features a gory, disturbing Mickey Mouse-style villain.

Variety reports another horror film is in the pipeline as well. Director Steven LaMorte announced the untitled project in a press release, saying, “Steamboat Willie has brought joy to generations, but beneath that cheerful exterior lies a potential for pure, unhinged terror.”

LaMorte insisted in a subsequent interview that his Mickey-inspired film is more of a tribute to the character than a brutal takedown.

“It all comes from our love of these characters,” LaMorte told Variety. “We love taking them and playing with them in different ways. It’s not a desire to ruin these characters or make a quick buck, but to love them and honor them and show them in a new light.”

Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World
Brooke McDonald/Simplemost

Fair enough, LaMorte.

Since the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey is now public domain, there’s not much Disney’s formidable legal department can do except ensure the images used are clearly Willie and don’t resemble modern, still-copyrighted versions of Mickey.

“Whatever you do, to be protected against copyright infringement claims … you really have to be making new stuff and be sure you’re basing it on Steamboat Willie,” Harvard Law School professor Rebecca Tushnet told CNN.

In other words, the expired copyright on Willie still has its limits. It doesn’t mean it’s open-season on Mickey and the gang — and Disney’s legal department likely will make sure of that.  

Horror filmmakers plan movie featuring Mickey Mouse as copyright expires originally appeared on, helping make the most out of life.

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