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How KC’s Walt Disney Learned the Hard Way About Copyright Disney creation Steamboat Willie has entered the public domain after 95 years of copyright protection. The mouse’s adventures in new genres are well underway. 

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Above image credit: Walt Disney creation Steamboat Willie, a precursor to Mickey Mouse, has just entered the public domain. (Wikipedia Commons)
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7 minute read

Before Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, there was Steamboat Willie, a very Mickey-esque character who is not, at least legally, the same mouse. 

The Walt Disney Co. fought for decades to keep control of Steamboat Willie under copyright protection. But in January, Disney’s original mouse entered the public domain, making it free for reuse by anyone and everyone. 

Now, the race is on among creatives to cash in on Steamboat Willie, offering new twists on the iconic Kansas City animator’s legacy. 

The Mouse Before Mickey

Steamboat Willie first appeared in November 1928 and shares the better-known Mickey’s round ears, double-button shorts, black body, wispy tail and facial silhouette. 

But Willie is different in some key ways. 

Notably, he’s a black-and-white character per the technology of his day. Unlike Mickey, Willie wears no gloves, and his shoes are clearly shoes and not the yellow sack-things modern Mickey wears. Willie also wears a stovepipe-like hat. 

Watch Steamboat Willie in Action

The big difference, though, is how Steamboat Willie came to be. 

“So, there’s a fair amount of innovation going on in animation in the 1910s and ‘20s, but Disney gets to the party late,” notes Doug Hudson, professor and chair of animation at Kansas City Art Institute. “Everyone is trying to make the next Felix the Cat — the competition at the time was like, ‘You’ve got to have a Felix the Cat.’ All the studios wanted was a cartoon superstar like Felix. 

“So his character, Oswald the Rabbit, was basically Felix with rabbit ears. Then, what’s interesting too, is Mickey really is kind of Oswald without the long ears. They just keep — the animators of the day — you know what I mean? They just keep permeating these characters.” 

Disney Learns a Hard Lesson About Copyright 

Disney’s professional animation studio career effectively began in Kansas City in 1922 when he opened Laugh-O-gram Films at 1127 E. 31st St

The studio eventually employed 11 people and Disney himself. It was here that Disney produced short, fairytale-inspired cartoons and live-action cartoon mashups. But bankruptcy prompted him to leave Kansas City for California in 1923.  

A poster for "Trolley Troubles," featuring Walt Disney's creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Walt Disney’s creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit first appeared in 1927. (Wikipedia Commons)

Disney found his footing in California, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit appeared in 1927. Disney was able to see Oswald into theaters through early animation pioneer Margaret J. Winkler, an animation producer and distributor. 

Disney and Winkler contracted Oswald to Universal Pictures. But by 1928, Disney wanted a bigger cut of the proceeds. Universal, however, offered less than the current terms. 

“Universal, they said: ‘No, actually, times are tough. We’re going to pay you less,’” says Butch Rigby, Kansas City real estate developer, owner of Screenland Theatres and chair and founder of nonprofit Thank You Walt Disney, Inc. 

Disney tried playing hardball, Rigby says, threatening to take his rabbit elsewhere, but it didn’t go well.  

“Universal reminded him that he did not own the copyright to the rabbit, and they could draw it with anybody they wanted to. And, as a matter of fact, they let him know they were going to draw it with his animators.” 

It was a devastating blow. 

“They hired most of his animators away from him,” Rigby says. “And sure enough, Walt finds out from his brother that the rest of the guys who all lost their jobs in Kansas City when he went bankrupt, they went with the distributor because they thought they’d all be out of jobs again. Oswald was their main character.” 

Down and Out with Crumbs and Mortimer 

From this low point, Disney went back to his drawing board and to a critter he had come to know in Kansas City — a little mouse. Disney dubbed the mouse Mortimer, one of a few he’d heard scurrying around Laugh-O-gram at night when he’d moved into the studio to save money on apartment rent. 

Mortimer became tame and eventually took residence in a small cage on Disney’s desk. Released to the countryside before Disney left for California, it was to this mouse that he and longtime friend and companion — and legendary animator — Ub Iwerks returned after the Oswald debacle. 

“They decided they’d make a mouse and base it on the little mouse they used to feed in Kansas City — Mortimer,” Rigby says. “It looked suspiciously like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit but had different ears and a different personality.” 

Mortimer became the model for Steamboat Willie. 

Walt Disney in 1922 at Laugh-O-gram Studios in Kansas City.
Walt Disney in 1922 at Laugh-O-gram Studios in Kansas City. (File Photo)

Steamboat Willie the Serial Killer

With Steamboat Willie hitting the public domain at the beginning of 2024, the race is on to use the likeness before the newness of its availability wears off. 

Naturally, AI (Artificial Intelligence) creations began popping up like the twirling Tchaikovsky bopping mushrooms of “Fantasia.” One creator even launched an AI image generator trained only on Steamboat Willie stills — 96 of them, to be exact. 

The crypto crowd also jumped in, and “The Crypto Times” reported on the creation of a digital currency named $MICKEY

But perhaps the biggest Steamboat Willie splash is “Mickey’s Mouse Trap.” The film will be headed by Steven LaMorte, a director with a reputation for creating gory takedowns of beloved animated characters. (His 2022 “The Mean One” features a slasher villain who is unquestionably modeled on The Grinch.)  

Cashing in on Steamboat Willie

There’s even a new first-person shooter game on the horizon. Nightmare Forge Games recently announced “Infestation: Origins” in which players destroy vermin nests to prevent outbreaks of disease. 

Disney the Optimist and Disney the Litigator  

Between his bankruptcy and the loss of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one could forgive Disney if he had become bitter or pessimistic. But, according to Hudson, adversity seemed to animate the animator. 

“What’s interesting is what Kansas City taught Walt,” Hudson said. “My impression is it showed him the rules of the game. It got him inspired. He got burned. But he was one of those guys who’d get hit and then he would keep going. I think he was green. He got smacked really hard, kept going, and then once he got out to California, he just dug in. That’s why he was so hardcore about all his copyrights.” 

The Walt Disney Co. has, over the decades, become a famous defender of its intellectual property, and justifiably so. Disney and his staff, according to company press, earned nearly 1,000 honors and citations, including 48 Academy Awards and seven Emmys, in his lifetime. And, even with Steamboat Willie entering the public domain, the company has no intention of going easy on third parties’ use of the likeness. 

“Ever since Mickey Mouse’s first appearance in the 1928 short film ‘Steamboat Willie,’ people have associated the character with Disney’s stories, experiences and authentic products. That will not change when the copyright in the Steamboat Willie film expires,” says Katie Rosborough, policy communications officer for The Walt Disney Co.  

Rosborough noted that the many other versions of Disney’s iconic mouse are not in the public domain and “remain unaffected by the expiration of the Steamboat Willie copyright.” 

Disney’s fight to protect its properties will continue, Rosborough says, as will the work of “safeguarding against consumer confusion caused by unauthorized uses of Mickey” and the company’s many other characters. 

Life Lessons 

Copyrights, lawsuits and contracts aside, the Disney brand has emotional staying power for many fans like Lawrence-based artist and self-professed Disney geek Stacey Lamb, whose love of all things Magic Kingdom started in 1969. 

“My mom and her sister and my cousin and my uncle, we took a road trip out west, and one of our stops was Disneyland. And that is when it started. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and how it made me feel,” she recalls. 

“Then, we went to Disney World in ‘72. It had only been open a year, and I was 12. And I took my best friend, and I went with my mom and her sister, and they let us loose. By the time I was 12, I had deemed myself an artist. And I just remember how I felt and everything about it. And since then, my family has gone almost every year.” 

Lamb wore a vintage black, red and gold Disney World sweater for her interview, and her home is decorated with Disney memorabilia and artifacts — sketches, Christmas ornaments, photos from trips. She’s even close friends with the current voice of Mickey, Bret Iwan

Stacey Lamb at work in her home.
Lawrence, Kansas-based creator Stacey Lamb cites Walt Disney as an ongoing source of inspiration. (Haines Eason | Flatland)

And, like Disney himself, Lamb has chosen perseverance during adversity. A decades-long Hallmark artist, Lamb was laid off with many other Hallmark employees in 2013, an event that devastated her. 

In the trough of her troubles, a dear friend was diagnosed with cancer, received a bone marrow transplant and was facing a 100-day recovery in a hospital. Lamb began searching for a way to support her friend during the long recovery. 

“I thought, holy smokes, you’re in the hospital for a hundred days,” Lamb says, eyes wide. “I go: ‘That’s a long time. You’re going to get bored.’ And so, I thought, ‘I’ll draw a hundred pictures.’ 

“So, Cheryl was a very religious person, and I Googled encouraging Bible scriptures. I chose 25 — so 25 of my drawings, they all had to do with scripture. The other 75 were just encouraging messages and quotes. I got some clothesline and some clothes clips, and I put all of the cards I made for her in a six-by-nine white envelope, and I dubbed them ‘Cheryl’s 100 days.’” 

Cheryl strung the cards around her hospital room, and the doctors and nurses noticed and, as the days wore on, they asked if they could take part — if they could open, read and hang some of the cards with Cheryl. 

One day, Lamb was yanked from her low spell by a doctor at that hospital. 

“He looked me straight in the eye, and he said, ‘Why aren’t you marketing these?’  

“The ride home was… it is very emotional because… It was like somebody turned my lights back on, and I came home, and I was back. So, I created these cards for the doctor, and he was my first customer, and my first product was the hundred days countdown cards.” 

Lamb’s title now: mayor of HAPPYtown, the name she gave her company. (Her husband is the city manager.) The company has grown to include products that help folks young and old deal with the highs and the lows in life.  

Lamb counts Walt Disney as a role model. 

“What I love so much about Walt Disney is he had visions and dreams, number one. But number two, he didn’t give up. I’m the same way. I won’t give up on this. He got smacked hard in Kansas City, but I love that about him — he would always keep trying.  

“He’s a yes guy,” Lamb says, her face bright. “Let’s do this. Let’s just do it.” 

Flatland contributor Haines Eason is the owner of startup media agency Freelance Kansas.

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