I want to talk about something you own outright, that became yours at the start of the year, possibly without you even realizing it.
On January 1st, the classic 1928 Disney animated short, “Steamboat Willie,” entered the public domain, and the earliest versions of Mickey and Minnie Mouse (no relation) are now available for anyone to remix, adapt, and redistribute (with some important limitations).
This day was delayed by multiple revisions to U.S. copyright law that Disney lobbied for over the past 50 years, specifically, to maintain exclusive control of their flagship characters for as long as possible.
Like many Disney works, "Steamboat Willie" was itself indebted to public domain works of its own time. The cartoon adapted and incorporated “Turkey in the Straw,” a 19th-century folk song. First published around 1834, "Turkey in the Straw" was about as old in 1928 as "Steamboat Willie" is today.
As a kid, I first saw this cartoon in a theater at Disney World, one of the gigantic theme parks built on the success of that cartoon and its star character. The mouse in "Steamboat Willie" was a crude black-and-white version of the Mickey I knew. He wore no gloves. His eyes were little ovals. His shoes were practical-sized. And his attitude...
In some ways, this is a similar Mickey to the one we see in "The Sorceror's Apprentice" segment of Fantasia (1940). In both cartoons, Mickey slacks off his menial chores and tries to take over when the boss isn't looking.
In "The Sorceror's Apprentice," the result is comic mayhem as a growing number of brooms flood the wizard's castle with limitless buckets of water. In "Steamboat Willie," the boat keeps chugging along until the captain reclaims the wheel and boots Mickey down some stairs.
The later, more fully developed Mickey gets himself in over his head, literally, but never gives up on trying to set things right, learns an important lesson, and is suitably chastened at the end. But the Mickey of "Steamboat Willie" is just a punk.
I remember being shocked at the way Mickey, in "Steamboard Willie," violently tortures a musical performance out of his fellow cartoon animals. In other cartoons I'd grown up on, you could justify Jerry's violence on Tom as self-defense against a predator who wants to eat him. You could justify Wile E. Coyote's injuries as cosmic justice for his persistence in chasing a magical roadrunner who can bend the laws of physics. But Mickey, in his debut appearance, tortures bystanders for fun, or to show off for the lady mouse in his life.
The cartoon establishes Mickey’s boss as a large and imposing cat. Later, Mickey twirls a much smaller cat around by the tail. Are we not to assume that Mickey is displacing his workplace frustrations by abusing his boss’s child?
In the universe of this cartoon, animals on two feet are people while animals on four feet, even of the same species, are inferior creatures fit to be abused and denigrated for the pleasure of an audience. It's troubling that these scenes of cruelty are scored with a tune that was, at the time, associated with the notoriously racist minstrel show genre.
"Steamboat Willie" is a product of a less enlightened time; problematic media can still inform, educate, and entertain; and context is always important.
This cartoon will always be remembered most for introducing beloved characters, advancing the state of animation technology, flourishing at the box office, launching an entertainment empire, and influencing generations of animators.
It remains popular, and now it belongs to all of us...with a big asterisk.
Disney still owns and enforces the copyright in its more modern depictions and uses a trademarked "Steamboat Willie" clip as the production logo for the Walt Disney Animation Studios, which limits what can be done with public domain Mickey and the care that must be taken.
Still, that hasn't stopped people from testing the limits of their newfound freedom to use the character on shirts and YouTube videos.
Far and away the best non-Disney use of Mickey so far has been the Mousetrapped webcomic by Randy Milholland.
I've known Randy from the Superguy shared universe we both wrote for back in the 90s. Randy has published his Something*Positive webcomic for over twenty years and is the current artist for the Sunday Popeye comic strips.
In addition to being a massively talented writer and artist, Randy is a scholar of classic comic strips and early animation. Randy's knowledge and passion for the genre shine through in Mousetrapped as he takes his version of the character in new directions while incorporating other public domain comics and animation characters and adding a heavy helping of easter eggs.
As soon as it became possible for people to legally turn Mickey Mouse into an NFT, people started turning Mickey Mouse into NFTs. It began at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, hasn't stopped, and probably won't ever stop.
I Won't Judge...
These Mickey Mouse PFPs have been recently trading for the ETH equivalent of around $200.
Maybe these traders honestly like the aesthetic of this collection.
Maybe they feel that it captures a historic moment, or that the tokens will appreciate in value.
Maybe they like the capitalist and/or anti-capitalist sentiment of taking ownership of a cultural icon and corporate mascot.
I won't judge.
However, I will point out that these NFT Mickeys are not based on the 1928-era character design that is now in the public domain. They include more contemporary features that Disney still claims a copyright on.
But like I said, I won't judge. If you want to spend 0.1 ETH on a contraband Mickey that might be copyright-blocked at any moment, you go right ahead.
A Free Mint for a Free Mickey
You can avoid the cash grab, save your money, and still celebrate the entry of Mickey Mouse into the public domain with a true free mint of "Steamboat Willie" -- free of charge, free of gas, free of platform fees, free of royalties, and free of copyright restrictions.
This independent release of the cartoon short from the public domain respects all ongoing Disney Corporation trademarks and copyright interests.
"Steamboat Willie" is already yours, with all its clever bits and problematic aspects. Enjoy!
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