The Los Angeles Times investigates the possibility that the Walt Disney Company might not actually own the copyright to Mickey Mouse (free registration required), due to a strange collection of circumstances around the copyright notice in “Steamboat Willie” and the state of copyright law in effect at the time the short was released.
The inconsistency was first noted by former Disney researcher Gregory S. Brown, whose unsuccessful attempt to capitalize on the murky copyright status of a Disney cartoon led to the discovery of the “Steamboat Willie” copyright notice, which lists 3 names in the copyright notice. Under the law in effect at the time, the Copyright Act of 1909, any of the three (Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, and the Cinephone Powers System) could claim ownership, thus nullifying all claims. Brown’s discovery was picked up by law journals and students, although their claims attracted little attention outside of law school circles and, in at least one instance, drew a harsh threat of legal action from Disney.
The article also notes how the Disney corporation (which declined to be interviewed for the article) has pursued copyright claims for other properties such as Bambi and Peter Pan that are often contrary to the legal stances it takes towards its own properties.
Regardless of the state of Disney’s copyright on Mickey Mouse, the character is still protected by trademark laws, and Michael J. Madison, associate dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, points out in the article that, “Disney has enough ammunition on its side to dissuade all but the most well-financed competitor, or any but the most committed public-interest advocates, from challenging Mickey.”