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  • Writer's pictureCJ Halbard

Steamboat Willie the Slasher Flick

Artifical Intelligence meets public domain

AI-assisted content generation is going to explode across media over the next few years, including art, design, music, film, video games, and prose. At the same time some very famous intellectual properties, or at least parts of them, are going into the public domain. This includes aspects of Mickey Mouse, Sherlock Holmes, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Conan the Barbarian.

What happens when those two trends collide?

Talking on the Project Tempest Podcast, leading entertainment attorneys Scott Sholder and Simon Pulman make the case for smart, informed risk management as creators dive into the new world of possibilities, while still allowing for gleeful fun:

So Steamboat Willie [is soon going into] the public domain, the original eight minute long Mickey Mouse short. When something like that goes into the public domain, it's very limited to that specific work. The more modern Mickey with red pants and white gloves, he's off the table. Still can't use him. But Steamboat Willie, the black and white one with the longer nose who tortures animals and does all kinds of other strange things on this river vessel, he's up for grabs. You can show it publicly. You can download it. You can send it to somebody. You can make a derivative work out of it.

If the technology was available, you could feed it through some sort of AI engine and turn Steamboat Willie into, say, a horror film where Steamboat Willie is possessed by a demon and goes on a killing spree. But you couldn't bring Goofy into that, right? You couldn't bring Pluto into that. They couldn't be victims of this demonic mouse. It's limited to that specific property.

Where you're going to run into problems is that people are going to think there's more on the table than there actually is. And they're going to say, oh, I have all these great tools to be able to make my own thing out of Mickey Mouse, Sherlock Holmes, whatever it is, but they're probably going to overreach unless they’re sufficiently informed about the limits of what's actually in the public domain.

In the audio clip, Scott and Simon break down more examples of where overnight success could spell trouble for creators, and potential ways to manage risk while taking advantage of the torrent of opportunities that AI presents. The full episode goes even deeper across AI-related copyright and dealmaking issues.

[One clarification: Steamboat Willie goes into the public domain on January 1, 2024. In the audio clip we misspoke the timing, amid discussion of several other IPs as well.]

None of Scott & Simon’s discussion should be taken as legal advice: you should always consult an attorney directly. Scott & Simon’s views are their own and not necessarily those of their firm or clients.

Scott Sholder & Simon Pulman are both entertainment attorneys based in New York. Scott focuses primarily on intellectual property and litigation, while Simon focuses primarily on dealmaking and business issues.

Follow Scott Sholder at

Follow Simon Pulman at

The Project Tempest Podcast is where creators from around the globe talk with author C J Halbard about their journeys, struggles, and inspirations.


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