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How AI is Revolutionizing the Study of Early Mickey Mouse

An innovative AI picture generator capable of creating eldritch horrors was developed on Disney’s 1928 cartoons

Mickey Mouse eating pickles, showing that the results aren’t always perfect. More training time and better training data could potentially fix this in the future.

Three traditional Mickey Mouse cartoons became publicly available in the US on January 1st, and artificial intelligence researchers haven’t wasted any time utilizing this opportunity. An AI model trained on those public-domain cartoons was posted to Hugging Face on Monday by Pierre-Carl Langlais, a digital humanities researcher. Anyone can use this model to create new still images in response to a written request. The results demonstrate a noteworthy early exploration of integrating public domain Mickey into the AI sphere, despite the fact that they are haphazard and occasionally jumbled. The new model is capable of creating images of Peg Leg Pete, Mickey Mouse, and Minnie Mouse. Langlais says on the model card, “The generated image confirms [sic] the 1928 design in order to have Mickey, Minnie, and Pete and is in the public domain. This is still a work in progress; while the model is in development, generated images should be checked to ensure they really are in the public domain. Langlais employed 40 stills from The Gallopin’ Gaucho, 22 stills from Plane Crazy, and 34 cartoon image stills from Steamboat Willie—all of which were released in 1928 and are currently in the public domain—to fine-tune a version of Stable Diffusion XL in order to generate the model.

Though it produced lower-quality results, he probably kept the number of images short for practical reasons because additional stills would have meant more money and training time. Additionally, Langlais notes on the model card that although the training isn’t yet at the best level, things could improve in time: “Hopefully, with the cartoons now being part of the public domain, higher definition versions should be available.” Soon after the new model was announced on social media, Techdirt editor Mike Masnick started an argument on Bluesky where users were jokingly creating pictures of Mickey Mouse with the new AI image generator that Disney’s probably wouldn’t want to see. Some of the images included Mickey smoking crack, attacking the US Capitol, being nailed to a crucifix, and transforming into a horrible eldritch creature.

AI-generated version of 1928 Mickey Mouse using the prompt, drawing of Mickey, a muscular barbarian with weapons beside a CRT television set, cinematic studio lighting

Any themes not found in the original works have been derived from the Stable Diffusion XL base model, as Mickey cartoons haven’t featured crucifixes or Lovecraft horrors since 1928. Naturally, Mickey Mouse has already been the target of jokes of this nature without the use of AI. Even if the early Mickey had not yet reached the public domain, many of these pictures would probably be covered by fair use laws for parody. Additionally, it was formerly feasible to create Mickey graphics with AI if you employed an unfiltered AI image generator. In particular, though, people are experimenting with the fact that the 1928 Mickey Mouse picture can now be used totally and freely, legally, as AI training data without any restrictions (despite the fact that the legality of copyrighted training data remains unsettled in the US). It’s important to note that even with Stable Diffusion XL used here, the photographs are not entirely legal because their base model uses training data that contains copyrighted works.

However, as we just discussed, since the problem hasn’t been entirely handled, it’s also not necessarily prohibited. This involves a great deal of sensitivity. The fact that AI-generated images are technically in the public domain in the US and cannot be copyrighted adds to the intrigue of the legal situation. However, some of the images may not be entirely in the public domain if they contain unapproved usage of characters or designs that are protected by copyright. As we previously noted, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 was supposed to push back the public domain date of the three 1928 Mickey Mouse cartoons by 25 years, to January 1, 1999. It’s important to remember that newer iterations of Mickey are not covered by this public domain admission, and using the Mickey Mouse moniker in a commercial setting still carries trademark ramifications. Now that the general American public “owns” an early version of Mickey, expect those issues to be thoroughly tested over time.

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