Mickey Amok

How copyright expiration forces entertainment IP to become platforms

Happy new year and welcome to 2024. Special welcome to new subscribers!

I recently changed newsletter platforms, so please let me know if you have any issues.

The new platform (Beehiiv) allows for a bit more experimentation around referrals and rewards, as well as polling. I hope to use it to make it easy for you to give me feedback on content, what topics you’re most interested in etc.

Thanks for following along. Let’s jump into this week’s story:

Mickey Amok

What happens when famous IP becomes public domain, and what does it have to do with the future of entertainment?

(Picture: Sleight of Hand Productions / Andrew L. Kern

Key takeaways

  • The original Steamboat Willie character entered the public domain in 2024, different from the modern copyrighted Mickey Mouse.

  • A new 2,000-item NFT collection named "The Steamboat Willie Collection" sold out in 40 minutes at $2 each.

  • The collection, not affiliated with Disney, was created by Truth Labs using the public-domain character Steamboat Willie.

  • Copyright expiry on IP is like a forced transition from “IP as product” to “IP as platform”

  • The evolution of Steamboat Willie in public domain could serve as a case study for entertainment IPs as platforms.

As we entered 2024, a new 2,000-item NFT collection went on sale for $2 each. 40 minutes later it was sold out.

The collection name? The Steamboat Willie Collection.

Here’s what the NFT looks like:

No, this wasn’t a new digital collectible initiative from Disney (they’re busy launching Pinnacle). It was created by Truth Labs, a web3 creator collective.

You may have read about it in the news. On January 1st this year, the “Steamboat Willie” copyright expired and the IP entered the public domain. This means anyone can use the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse and create whatever they want.

It's important to note that the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse differs from the modern Mickey Mouse we know. The modern iterations of Mickey Mouse remain under copyright protection, and Disney lawyers will vigilantly monitor this.

You can see the character evolution here:

I’ve previously written that future successful entertainment IP should be managed as platforms, not products. When the copyright of entertainment IP expires, it forces a transition from product (centrally owned and monetized) to platform (expansive, co-created, and open).

The disadvantage is that it occurs without the original IP holder maintaining control or opportunity to monetize the derivative works and expansions on the “IP platform”. If an entertainment company transitions from product to platform voluntarily and strategically, it retains both.

Copyright expiration can be an interesting indicator of what would happen with more openness around co-creating IP as platforms.

In the case of Mickey Mouse, we already have the first NFT collection, and there’s also a “Steamboat Willie” indie horror movie in the works.

Sidenote: It’s unclear why the second life of family characters with expired copyrights is horror movies. (What do you mean “you haven’t seen Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey??”)

Platforms > Products

Some of the most valuable companies in the world create platforms, not products. But what is a platform business? Bill Gates' definition is useful:

“A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it, exceeds the value of the company that creates it."

Another example: Roblox is significantly larger than Fortnite. A key difference since inception is that Roblox has always been a user-generated content platform, while Fortnite initially relied on centrally produced content but is shifting towards more UGC. Roblox consistently offers new and fresh content because users actively create continuously.

For entertainment IP, becoming platforms enables

  • Consumers and fans can participate in different ways, depending on depth and degree of fandom and engagement.

  • Entertainment franchises aim to retain more attention for longer, especially in-between major franchise events (movie releases, new games, etc.).

  • Build a stronger sense of community and belonging among fans.

Closing remarks

Watching Steamboat Willie's second life evolve could provide valuable insights into the do’s and don’ts for entertainment IP holders that might dare to venture into this territory.

Thanks for reading another edition of In Transit. 

Please subscribe if you want to catch future posts early. 

You can follow me on LinkedIn for more frequent, bite-sized content. 

And if you have any feedback or an idea you want to discuss, you can reach me at m[at]in-transit.xyz.