Overly Cautious Disclaimer

Before we start, I just want to establish that this is not legal advice.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, we wanted to say that…

We Like Art

Aside from our day jobs, most of Mediocre are some type of ‘creative,’ whether that means we dabble in book binding or have a full-blown printing press in a shed behind our building. Some of us also do things that combine other people’s art, like staple together zines or make spooky video compilations to play at a Halloween party. As a result, most of us are curious about how our work is legally protected, but also what laws exist around using other people’s art.

Recently, a public conversation happened across social media after the news that the copyright for Walt Disney’s animated short film “Steamboat Willie” expired. Since Disney has been notoriously protective over their intellectual properties, this news brought forth a tangible glee from remix artists across the net. After all, Disney once campaigned congress to increase the length of copyrights even though they’ve also demonstrated the ability to use other people’s work.

As much as I hate to be a wet blanket, I just want to point out that copyrights are not the only thing to consider because trademarks exist, and even though a work can be in the public domain, it can still be associated with a registered trademark. And while you may not end up violating copyright, you could still find yourself at the business end of a cease and desist.

Intermission for a Fun Little Disclaimer

Again, this is not legal advice.

I don’t know why, exactly, but I often see people confuse the ideas of copyright and trademark, and I think that’s because they’ve probably never had them properly explained. I once took a class from an intellectual property lawyer and they presented it simply by saying they serve different purposes: trademarks identify the creator of a good or service while copyrights protect creative works from being copied. This is a pretty basic definition, but if you realize that they serve two very different purposes (i.e. identifying a creator vs permission to copy something), it’s easier to understand.

Even mainstream news outlets often conflate the two. When the copyright to “Steamboat Willie” entered into the public domain, one news outlet said “now anyone in the U.S. can use the Steamboat Willie version of the Mickey Mouse character without fear of copyright infringement.” While that’s technically true (people can do a lot of things, after all), it also doesn’t address Disney’s use of Mickey Mouse as a trademark for their brand. As a result, plenty of people may wrongly assume they can use this version of Mickey Mouse without any legal repercussions, and I’m not sure that’s the case. (And if that’s not the case, then leading people towards that conclusion is kind of irresponsible.)

Mickey Mouse is a character in a short film, sure, but he’s also a mascot for Walt Disney as a company. When people see Mickey Mouse on a t-shirt, they assume the right to use Mickey was licensed by Disney, meaning that Disney either owns that t-shirt company or, at the very least, approves of their quality enough to give them the go-ahead. Granted, I’ve lived in rural parts of the state filled with wonderful venues called “flea markets” where plenty of artisans and traders build entire careers on selling merchandise they hope flies under the radar from the legal teams of trans-national corporations. But in general, if you go to the mall and see Mickey on a shirt, there’s a good chance someone paid to put him there.

So if the use of Mickey Mouse (even the “Steamboat Willie” version) could potentially fool consumers into thinking Disney was in any way involved in making it, then a court could easily rule in Disney’s favor. If a small bakery or fashion designer violated a trademark because the news suggested it was okay, they could easily face unexpected damages as a result.

This is Not an Ad but It Is a Disclaimer

I don’t know if I’ve said this or not, but this is not legal advice. However, if you do have serious questions about intellectual property, how about you consult one of our friends at Stoll Keenon Ogden, PLLC?

Details Matter

The problem, ultimately, is the difference between “the letter of the law” and “the spirit,” and how different people tend to fall into one of those camps. I’d like to think that Mediocre falls into both: we learn the letter of the law so that we can better serve the spirit.

When creating brands, people often have ideas that make perfect sense in their head but don’t always translate when said out loud. Instead of opening up a restaurant called “Steamboat Willie’s House of Pancakes”, how about taking a second to ask the question, why do you want that name? Is it because you want to sell mouse-shaped pancakes? Or is it because you share the similar feelings of magic and wonder often found in Disney’s stories? Or maybe it’s because you believe so strongly in your recipe that you just want people to notice so they’ll try a bite.

The thing is, finding that answer is what we do. We don’t just design brands; we foster creativity. And we care far more about learning where your passions lie than in jumping onto a bandwagon. And if what you really want is to make pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse, we’re happy to walk that path that lets you do that. (But, like: legally, of course.)

Now Onto the Show

Again, none of what we’ve said above should be misconstrued as legal advice.

That being said, the only thing this news allows us to do with “Steamboat Willie,” and that version of Mickey Mouse, is copy it. So, here you go, copied from the Internet Archive and onto our server for you to enjoy:

Bronson O'Quinn

Bronson O’Quinn’s a Web Developer, Writer, and pop culture junkie and fan of Americana. As a teenager, his prized possession was a DVD collection of Walt Disney shorts made during World War II. He tried watching them with his six-year-old, but had to quit once they started imitating a goofily animated Hitler’s “wacky hand motions.” He wants you to know that this led to a conversation about the subtle differences between that distinct hand motion and raising your arm in class.


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