Mickey Mouse's Bizarre New Status Proves Disney is in Trouble

The company’s figurehead now belongs to the people.

Walt Disney Pictures

Disney has had a fraught relationship with the public domain. Public stories and characters have inspired countless Disney works, from Snow White to Frozen, but public domain laws have also threatened to put the company’s characters, including their beloved figurehead, into the hands of the people. Now, despite the company’s best efforts, an early version of Mickey Mouse has finally entered the public domain.

It couldn’t be worse timing for Disney, which is coming off a relatively weak year. Is this new development a sign of further trouble to come?

In 1928, Disney introduced Mickey Mouse in the shorts Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy. The Mickey we see in them isn’t the one we know and love today: he has black, Funko-Pop-esque eyes, and lacks the gloves that would be added just a year later. But even though this Mickey is just a prototype, the expiring copyright is already affecting the company’s image.

Steamboat Willie became a modern fixture of Disney’s Animation Studio logo.

Walt Disney Pictures

Following in the footsteps of the horror movie Winnie-The-Pooh: Blood and Honey, two horror films have already announced an “edgy” take on the wholesome character. Steven LaMorte, who directed the Grinch-themed slasher The Mean One, has teased an untitled horror movie following Mickey as he terrorizes the passengers of a ferry, in a riff on Steamboat Willie’s setting.

Another horror movie, Mickey’s Mouse Trap, puts the character in an arcade for a Five Nights at Freddy’s knockoff. And if you’re more into gaming, Nightmare Forge Games has announced Infestation 88, a co-op survivor horror title that uses mutant rodents who look a lot like Mickey Mouse as its Big Bad.

This is the exact situation Disney has tried to avoid for decades. In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which was nicknamed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” in a nod to Disney’s heavy involvement in its creation. The act extended copyright on creations made before 1978, but not even Disney can stop the march of time, and the company is now out of options when it comes to protecting Mickey.

No one will mistake these headline-grabbing projects for official Disney movies and games, but this is another obstacle for a company that had a rough 2023. Family-friendly movies like Wish underperformed, Star Wars struggled to pick a lane, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe had a disastrous year. The copyrights on later iterations of Mickey are holding strong (the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” Mickey everyone recognizes won’t enter the public domain until 2035), but this is a wake-up call for a brand that needs to either reaffirm its iconic status or lose its central place in mass culture.

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