Earlier this week, Disney’s film “Steamboat Willie” entered the US public domain after nearly a century, marking a turning point for the iconic Mickey Mouse. This led to an explosion of new versions and memes based on the original cartoon. However, Disney is still blocking the video on YouTube in some countries and demonetizing remixes. What’s unclear is whether these restrictions are valid or just over-policing.
Mickey Mouse’s copyright status remains potentially messier outside the US. Fair use law allows for parodies and commentaries on a copyrighted work, but it’s a complex, case-by-case process. The internet’s content moderation at scale is an impersonal and automated process, often causing false positives. These complexities favor conservative interpretations of copyright law, and the system favors large media companies over smaller creators.
The situation may only become more complex as major characters like Superman, Batman, and James Bond begin losing copyright protections in the US. This evolving US public domain is a new problem for web platforms, as major pieces of intellectual property passed out of copyright in one of their biggest markets in just 2019. Now that this world is a clear reality, users are taking advantage of its opportunities.
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