Legal Expert Warns: Navigating Mickey Mouse NFTs Without Disney’s Wrath

The recent surge in nonfungible tokens (NFTs) featuring the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse from Disney's "Steamboat Willie" has raised important legal questions.

by Faruk Imamovic
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Legal Expert Warns: Navigating Mickey Mouse NFTs Without Disney’s Wrath
© Getty Images/Kevin Winter

The recent surge in nonfungible tokens (NFTs) featuring the 1928 version of Mickey Mouse from Disney's "Steamboat Willie" has raised important legal questions. Lawyer Oscar Franklin Tan, Chief Legal Officer of Atlas and a contributor to NFT platform Enjin, offers clarity on the nuances of using this iconic character in the digital asset space.

Understanding Copyright and Trademark Laws

While the 1928 depiction of Mickey Mouse has entered the public domain, allowing for its use, there are critical limitations, especially in the realm of NFTs. Tan emphasizes that only this specific version of Mickey Mouse - a scarier, black and white character with a longer nose and no gloves - is public domain under U.S.

law. However, Mickey Mouse as a trademark and brand remains under Disney's private ownership. This distinction is crucial for creators and enthusiasts in the NFT community. The full-color version of Mickey Mouse, particularly the sorcerer from 1940, is still privately owned.

Moreover, the legal status of the 1928 depiction varies in countries with different copyright countdown laws.

Guidelines for NFT Creators

For those interested in using the 1928 version of Mickey in NFTs, Tan's advice is straightforward: make it clear that the creation is not affiliated with Disney.

This was exemplified in a recent NFT collection titled 'Steamboat Willie', which explicitly referred to the 1928 version, avoiding any suggestion of an association with Disney's trademarked character. Tan highlights the distinction between copyright law, which protects artistic expression, and trademark law, which safeguards the identification of a product's source.

Therefore, while one can use the public domain image of Mickey Mouse from "Steamboat Willie", it is essential to avoid any implication that the work is connected to Disney. This guidance comes in the wake of a collection featuring the 1928 Mickey Mouse reaching a 24-hour trading volume of 521 Ether, approximately worth $1.2 million, on the NFT marketplace OpenSea.

As NFTs continue to grow in popularity and cultural significance, understanding and navigating these legal intricacies become increasingly important for creators and collectors alike.

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