Steamboat Willie Never Sounded Better

Mickey Mouse’s introduction to the world was the 1928 cartoon, Steamboat Willie. Not only was it the first appearance of Mickey with sound, it was also one of the first cartoons to employ synchronized sound. The problem is, the sound is awful. Sure, after nearly a century, what do you expect? But [Oona Räisänen] thought it wasn’t just age, but flutter from the original recording. Could it be made better? What follows that question is a self-described geek’s journey into the depths of recorded sound.

The first step was to find a high quality source. The Internet Archive had a copy that was mostly clean. But it also has a lossless scan of the movie including the original optical soundtrack. A quick script played back the original soundtrack and — you guessed it — the flutter is already there. You can see the original 7-minute short from Disney’s channel, below.

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Mickey Shall Be Free!

The end of the year brings with it festive cheer, and a look forward into the new year to come. For those with an interest in intellectual property and the public domain it brings another treat, because every January 1st a fresh crop of works enter the public domain.

We’ll take a look at the wider crop around the day, but this year the big story is that Mickey Mouse, whose first outing was in 1928’s Steamboat Willie, is to get his turn to be released from copyright. [Jennifer Jenkins] from Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, is using Mickey’s impending release to take a look at the law surrounding such a well-protected work.

Mickey has perhaps the greatest symbolism of all intellectual property when it comes to copyright terms, having been the reason for the Disney Corporation’s successive successful attempts to have copyright terms extended. Now even their reach is about to come to an end, but beware if you’re about to use him in your work, for the Mickey entering the public domain is an early outing, without gloves or the colours and eyes of his later incarnations. Added to that, Disney have a range of trademarks surrounding him. The piece makes for an interesting read as it navigates this maze, and makes some worthwhile points about copyright and the public domain.

Last year, we welcomed Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the public domain. Meanwhile if you’re reading this in 2023, we believe our use of a header image featuring the 1928 Mickey to be covered by the doctrine of fair use.