Disney’s LOSING THE RIGHTS to Mickey, But a New Owner Has Emerged to Take Over

walt disney draws steamboat willie mickey mouse
Credit: Disney/Canva

Disney is set to lose its copyright on Mickey Mouse in a few short months, at which time the original version of Walt’s animated mouse will step into the vast unknown of the public domain for anyone and everyone to do with him as they please with no worries about copyright infringement. But even before Disney’s copyright expires, a new organization has begun profiting from Mickey’s likeness, laying claim to the mouse who started it all more than 95 years after he was created by Walt Disney.

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disney's steamboat willie mickey mouse

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

The Walt Disney Company is facing the expiration of its copyright on Mickey Mouse–specifically the 1928 original Mickey Mouse iteration of the fan-favorite iconic character known as Steamboat Willie, featured in an animated short by the same name. But this isn’t the first time the whistling steamer skipper has gotten dangerously close to the end of Disney’s copyright. As it stands at the time of this publication, The Walt Disney Company will officially relinquish its copyright on Steamboat Willie, effective January 1, 2024. But this isn’t the first time Disney has faced Mickey’s copyright expiration.

When Steamboat Willie was created in 1928, U.S. copyright law allowed for the copyright of intellectual property to last 28 years, with the ability to automatically extend the rights for an additional 28 years. Disney took full advantage of the extension, but in the 1980s, as Disney’s rights approached a firm expiration date, the company lobbied Congress to make changes to U. S. copyright laws. In perhaps the only example of the United States Congress being likened to Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, U. S. lawmakers granted Disney’s wish and completely overhauled the law detailing the parameters of copyright expiration. When it was all said and done, Mickey was safe once again, this time until 2024.

Early Walt Disney drawing up for auction in Nevada

Walt Disney draws Steamboat Willie/Credit: Disney

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Now, however, as only months remain before Steamboat Willie is set to sail off into the public domain, things seem uncertain. Disney is notorious for being litigious, so it hardly seems believable that the company won’t attempt to extend its copyright again. But as of the time of this publication, there’s no evidence to suggest that the company has filed suit to save Mickey. And if the company were to file, there’s little hope that Disney’s requests would be met with the same benevolence and granted wishes that were extended in the 1980s.

That’s because, in response to the ongoing feud between Disney and Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that began in early 2022 and was sparked by the controversy surrounding a Florida Education law, several members of the United States Congress, including Sen. Josh Hawley, fired back against Disney, promising to block any attempts by the company to extend its rights to Mickey again. But that may be the least of Disney’s worries.

Though the copyright to Steamboat Willie has yet to expire, another organization is cashing in on the likeness of Disney’s Main Mouse–and being extra careful not to infringe on the last remaining months of Disney’s copyright. An enterprise known as MSCHF has staked a pre-emptive claim on Disney’s mouse, going so far as to create a “token” featuring an image that bares a close enough resemblance to Mickey that consumers recognize him. MSCHF, it seems, is lying in wait, counting down the days until the Mickey Mouse copyright becomes a thing of the past.

MSCHF, which reportedly stands for “Miscellaneous Mischief,” has launched its own version of Mickey Mouse that’s a mix between a copy of Mickey and an idea about Mickey. MSCHF is selling “Famous Mouse” tokens that can be purchased for $100 each. Then, once Disney loses its copyrights in January 2024, the tokens can be redeemed for an actual piece of collectible artwork.

"Famous Mouse" tokens by MSCHF

“Famous Mouse” token sold by MSCHF/Credit: MSCHF

"Famous Mouse" tokens sold by MSCHF

Credit: MSCHF

MSCHF touts its “Famous Mouse” tokens as “hypothetical artwork” presently and “physical artwork in 2024.” But there’s more to the tokens than initially meets the eye. That’s because, in addition to the attractive jacket that houses the tokens, the unconventional pieces of “placeholder artwork” also share a message from the company that seems to be out of spite–not for Mickey, but for the company he represents.

“Famous Mouse is using the idea of conceptual art as a copyright loophole,” explains MSCHF’s CEO, Gabe Whaley, who admits his company is taking advantage of a loophole in the copyright law. “Copyright is always a game of loopholes.”

MSCHF CCO, Kevin Wiesner, says The Walt Disney Company is the perfect target for such a stunt.

“Mickey is the first classic Disney character that’s set to enter the public domain (specifically the Steamboat Willie incarnation),” Weisner explains. “Disney is notoriously litigious, so they’re the perfect target for this kind of copyright loophole shenanigans.”

The MSCHF website features the “Famous Mouse” Manifesto, in which the organization attempts to explain the history of Mickey’s copyright, as well as MSCHF’s plans to take over the moment Steamboat Willie enters the public domain. Across the site, Mickey Mouse is only referred to as “Famous Mouse,” and The Walt Disney Company is only referred to as “Famous Animation Company.”

MSCHF describes Disney as a “multinational behemoth, able to change national laws to suit the interests of a cartoon mouse,” referring to Disney’s success in lobbying Congress to change copyright laws in the 1980s. Further, MSCHF says Disney is “a massive all-swallowing conglomerate, with a desire for both industry dominance and cultural hegemony.”

walt disney world holding mickey mouse hand statute cinderella castle florida

Credit: Disney

“[Disney] is ever-growing, all-encompassing, creatively risk-averse, and society-blandening,” MSCHF states in its “Famous Mouse” Manifesto. “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.”

MSCHF’s intentions with the so-called “Famous Mouse” tokens have little to do with perseverating Mickey’s notoriety or furthering his legacy and more to do with mocking Mickey and the company behind him: the risk-averse, multinational behemoth bent on world dominance. Clearly, the organization seeks to be among the first to profit from the animated character created in 1928 by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, and since the tokens have been selling online since 2021, at least a portion of that goal has already been achieved.

Mickey Steamboat Willie Scene by Eduardo Suñer Quesada on Dribbble

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

But there’s still time for Disney to call in its brigade of legal counselors in an attempt to extend the copyright or, perhaps, to ask a judge to place an injunction on its expiration. They’ve done it before–couldn’t they do it again? That remains to be seen. But if Disney were to succeed in extending its copyright beyond January 1, 2024, MSCHF stands ready with a plan to follow along with the extension until it comes to an end as well.

Per the MSCHF website, should Disney evade an expiration of its rights yet again, the redemption date for the “Famous Mouse” tokens will be adjusted accordingly, and those who purchased a token for redemption will be notified of the change.

“The core of MSCHF x Famous Mouse is the ambiguous/hypothetical status of the artwork. If the date changes, MSCHF considers this to also be a part of the piece.”

famous mouse token

Credit: MSCHF

Only time will tell what the future holds for Disney and Steamboat Willie, but many fans are hoping that stunts like the one dreamed up by the “creative” minds at MSCHF won’t ever have the opportunity to come to fruition.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!