'Steamboat Willie' Is Now Public Domain, but What Is Behind Its Complex History?

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Jan. 2 2024, Updated 10:27 a.m. ET

Steamboat Willie steering his ship.
Source: Disney

The Gist:

  • Steamboat Willie has entered the public domain, leading many to wonder why the cartoon is offensive to some.
  • Mickey Mouse first appears in the cartoon, and it's hard to deny that early versions of the character were based on minstrel shows, and that Mickey himself displays some stereotypes about Black people from that era.
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Few pieces of iconography have endured more completely than Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney's universally recognized cartoon mouse has become synonymous with the company that bears his name. With the dawn of 2024, though, Steamboat Willie is also now in the public domain, which has shone a light on Mickey's origins as a character.

In spite of his status as a beloved symbol, Mickey has a more complicated history than you might imagine. Now that some versions of the character can be used by anyone, many want to know more about why some find Steamboat Willie offensive.

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Mickey and Minnie playing with a dog in 'Steamboat Willie.'
Source: Disney

Why is 'Steamboat Willie' offensive?

Steamboat Willie, which was first released in 1928, is the cartoon that offered us our introduction to Mickey as a character. As an article from Mel Magazine reminds us, Steamboat Willie and other early Mickey cartoons are steeped in the traditions of minstrelsy. Although Mickey is a mouse, he is drawn and behaves throughout his early cartoons the way a minstrel might, offering stereotypical depictions of African Americans.

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Given Walt Disney's fraught personal history of racist beliefs, it's not exactly a stretch to suggest his signature character might have been born in part out of a specific view of racial hierarchies. Mickey has certainly evolved in the decades since, and many of the racialized elements that were initially part of the character have been stripped away. It's hard to deny, though, that in those early years, and in Steamboat Willie, Disney was taking inspiration from minstrel shows.

Why is 'Steamboat Willie' public domain?

Usually, works enter the public domain 75 years after an artist created them. Public domain was created as a compromise between creators and the general public, one that gives an artist plenty of time to benefit from their creation before it becomes more widely available. Steamboat Willie's copyright was frozen for 20 years because of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which delayed the entry of a number of works into public domain.

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Source: YouTube

Just because Steamboat Willie is in the public domain, though, that doesn't mean that every version of Mickey Mouse is available for general use. Only versions that resemble Steamboat Willie are available for now, although other versions will become available in future years.

There's a 'Steamboat Willie' horror movie coming.

The same day that Steamboat Willie entered the public domain, a trailer dropped for Mickey's Mouse Trap, a film featuring a killer who wears a Mickey Mouse mask. The film does not yet have a release date, but like Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, it seems like it's going to take plenty of joy from using a beloved children's character as a vehicle for murder.

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