Steamboat Willie and Tugboat Tillie T-Shirts

Steamboat Willie Shirts

I generally have little interest in drawing characters created by other people, whether they be public domain or not. Mickey Mouse is a big exception.

I grew up loving Mickey Mouse and the Disney characters, but that is not the reason I wanted to draw the mouse. As much as I enjoyed legally drawing these rascals, the primary reason I wanted to draw the mouse is political rather than artistic.

Some history:

Because of the Disney Company’s obsession with protecting the mouse from the public domain, they have been at the forefront of copyright extension for years. They pushed for the Copyright Act of 1976, and they spearheaded the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998 (also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act). Previous to these two acts, the maximum a copyright could be held for was 56 years (and only if it had been renewed after 28 years). By helping enact these two laws, they have extended copyright to a ridiculous 96 years, and have effectively have robbed the American people out of 40 years of their public domain to preserve, create and do with as they please.

This I view as extremely tragic, particularly because so many works that people have not been able to preserve legally have simply been lost. At this point, over 75% of silent films have been lost, for example. While many would have been lost anyhow due to rapidly decomposing film stock, the threat of a lawsuit for trying to preserve things clearly is directly responsible for a large portion of this loss.

It is also worth noting, to give you an idea of the scale of their thievery: if the Mickey Mouse Protection Act had not gone into law, (I believe) all works created before 1953 would now be in the public domain. This year would give us James Bond, Marilyn Monroe in Playboy, and the first season of I Love Lucy. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and The Human Torch would have been in the public domain for years. Much of Donald Duck by Carl Barks would be available to the public, well past the first appearance of Uncle Scrooge. George Orwell’s 1984. The recording of “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. The Wizard of Oz. Gone With the Wind. Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Bashful, Sleepy, Doc and Dopey… the list goes on and on.

All of this has been done while Disney has made probably the majority of their wealth by exploiting works from the public domain (and then pretending they own them). The majority of Disney animated feature films from Snow White to Frozen had roots in creations in the public domain. Beyond that, they have used their ownership of Mickey Mouse to brutally harass cartoonists using the rodent in legitimate satire (see the tragic story of The Air Pirates).

The shirts I’ve printed are clearly transformative works. Disney has not to my knowledge portrayed Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie with a cable-knit sweater, a hook-hand, breasts, a pipe or a salty, devil-may-care attitude. Transformative works are what the public domain is supposed to encourage.

Disney should not be defining the conversation about what can be done with a public domain character. Rather than choosing to use the supposedly corporately-conceded tall hat and black-and-white shorts, I’ve chosen to do my own thing and have fun with it. I also put “NOT A WALT DISNEY PRODUCT” in the product descriptions, in case anyone should be confused about that.

I used “Steamboat Wille” rather than “Mickey Mouse” as the logo, both because I believe they could still harass me for a trademark violation for using a Mickey Mouse logo… but also to emphasize the transformative aspect of the public domain. I don’t want the character I drew to be referred to as Mickey Mouse (even though Mickey Mouse is public domain), because “Steamboat Willie” is a much more interesting and funny name, in my view (as is “Tugboat Tillie,” which was never a Disney character).

I’m no lawyer (thankfully), but this all seems well within the bounds of fair use of a cartoon character in the public domain to me.

Shirts available here, if you want one.

#mickeymouse #steamboatwillie #PublicDomain

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