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Film

The life, times and impending copyright-free future of Mickey Mouse

In 2024, Mickey Mouse will be liberated and homeless for the first time in his 96-year existence. Born in 1928, this new lease of life, away from his Disney overlords, might see the smiling, big eared dandy enter the world of slasher horror character-acting like his pantless pal Winne Pooh, rattling off a tell-all autobiography about his affairs with Captain Farley Foghorn, or continuing in the conventional cartoon realm but under a lucrative new contract with YouTube Kids. 

Whatever the future holds, you can guarantee Disney’s legal team will battle the ruling to the hilt. However, they will have one epic fight on their hands as they look to tackle US copyright law’s age-old principle of art entering the public domain. This occurs 95 years after a creation is first copyrighted. That ruling has stood pretty much since media entertainment began.

The rule for the rest of Mickey Mouse’s legacy is that you can’t confuse the public into an affiliation with Disney. Thus, in short, your new iteration simply has to be noticeably different from the Disney creation. This is because they still hold the trademark, so you can’t directly trace the character and his traits, but they lose exclusivity of his wider sense and name. 

However, if you’re wondering why Disney would care so much about the integrity of a character who is hardly storming the box office with a string of new movies these days, then the answer is in his brand identity. Back when Mickey first appeared on screens in Steamboat Willie, he marked the ground-breaking moment that animation and sound were synchronised. He was a symbol of the pioneering magic of Disney then, and now he remains the stalwart that gives depth to the corporation. 

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In the streaming world, Disney stands aside from the likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix as a service with a sense of history—a service with good old American values and wholesome entertainment. They can freely offer anything they want on top of that, but for the bulk of the population, that family lineage still counts for a lot. They are a brand bigger than the entertainment they offer, proof of that comes from the theme parks they have all over the world, and it is there where this big eared ambassador is even more important. 

In his lifetime, Mickey Mouse has shouldered the weight of being the face of Disney admirably. In the early days, he was a trailblazing presence, all science and progress, like a cartoon Kraftwerk. Then he matured into a sort of folk hero, like when Paul McCartney ditched the notion of an acerbic rock star and started singing Christmas songs. Then, Mickey settled down with Minnie and was the elder Paul Newman of animation. A noble presence and the face of an empire. 

His work became less prolific in many ways, but every new animated character would give a subtle nod to the mouse who started it all in earnest. He is the face of integrity for a company that many actually rile against. In fact, it was Disney’s mighty standing that first vetoed the public domain laws and forced congress to extend his copyright in 1988 in what has become known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. 

Now, however, rivals have been savvier and more steadfast in ensuring such measures are blocked this time around. As MSCHF CEO Gabe Whaley, whose company has already been launching placeholders for free use of the button-nosed star, scathingly said, “Disney is a massive all-swallowing conglomerate, with a desire for both industry dominance and cultural hegemony. It is ever-growing, all-encompassing, risk-averse, and society-blandening. We must leap at the chance to take back even the scant morsels available to us. At the slightest chance, we must eat them alive.”

It’s chatter that seems wildly incongruous with the Mickey we know and love, and that is exactly why this ruling is so pivotal—because the very reason it seems incongruous is because of Mickey Mouse himself. His happy little history is a great marketing sanitiser. Whaley’s stance has nitty-gritty legal ramifications itself, but aside from the possible claim that may be made against MSCHF, his reasoning remains pertinent. 

If Mickey Mouse is impeachable and his gloves come off, then ultimately, so is Disney. And with that, creative independence might flourish—and that may well defy Disney ideals. We’re already seeing Barbie reimagined and Pooh and Piglet ditching honey in a frenzied blood lust after that bastard Christopher Robin abandons them in a forthcoming horror. Lord knows whether Mickey might meet with a Broadway musical about how he was essentially held under a cruel conservatorship, but it may well be more entertaining than his current guise as a side-lined mascot who links an uber-capitalist conglomerate back to its pioneering past. 

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