Looking back at “Steamboat Willie”

As you may or may not have heard by now, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon “Steamboat Willie” is now public domain. Coincidentally, I recently watched this film, all 7 minutes and 46 seconds of it, after previously only sitting through the first minute or two.

My take on it is pretty straightforward. For starters, I’m surprised Disney themselves made this available on YouTube some years ago. The film prominently features the melody of “Turkey in the Straw.” This is the same “Turkey in the Straw” that shares its melody with songs with (more) blatantly racist lyrics and titles, which I won’t repeat here. You may well have heard the melody as a child played by an ice cream truck, though Good Humor teamed up with someone well-known in the recording industry to make a replacement back in 2020. (I’ll get back to this in a later post.)

If you’re looking for it, you can see something of a link between this version of Mickey Mouse and the minstrel shows of the era. (See this NPR story for further context.) There’s a lot of cartoonish abuse of farm animals, the first instance of which involves a goat with an appetite for sheet music and a guitar.

If you can get past all of that, there’s a lot of late 1920’s humor packed into a little under 8 minutes, and a good look at what Mickey Mouse used to be. Since this is public domain, I have made Steamboat Willie available via BitTorrent (seed file) along with a brief README file and some related materials; this is the official companion torrent to this post. Be aware that as of right now, for some reason the version I found on archive.org is missing the audio. This may due to a mistaken belief that only the silent version of this film is public domain; that is the case for another early Mickey Mouse cartoon but not this one.

The public domain is set to expand once again

Smithsonian magazine reports on an unfortunately unusual occurrence set to happen this coming New Year’s Day.  For the first time since 1998, the copyright on many works is expiring, thus adding to the public domain.

My reaction to this: About. Damn. Time.

Disney has led the copyright lobby and could be said to have literally turned copyright into a Mickey Mouse operation (Steamboat Willie, the first appearance of Mickey,  is not set to enter the public domain for another five years). These works should have hit the public domain long ago, and the stroke of midnight signaling the beginning of 2019 can’t come soon enough to actually make this official.

If you want a real eye-opener, start with the Statute of Anne and follow copyright law through to the present day. The original term of copyright was 28 years–the latter 14 of which returned to the author no matter what. Given the rapid obsolescence of modern electronic media, I have to wonder just how much sense the current term of decades after the life of the author makes in the present day. (The public domain becomes moot when the original physical media from a century ago has long since become unreadable and obsolete. Okay, so the copyright restrictions on that VHS tape have finally expired in 2080, now it’s unplayable and the supply of VHS VCRs worldwide is down to maybe a couple of hundred, so what the hell are you going to do with it? We’ve already seen this problem with the nitrate film stock used for early silent movies.)

For quite a few more years we will start seeing works enter the public domain every January 1. Indeed, it will actually be a happy new year every year for some time, though we need to stay vigilant and keep Disney (and the other large media companies that form the copyright lobbby) from ruining it.