Mickey Mouse is finally yours

Words by Alejandro Arroyo Yamin and Selin Clayton
Date 2023-10-20

Disney turned 100 this week.

It has been an entire century of magic. Even more interestingly for marketing professionals, a century of incredible brand building.

From an animation studio to an entire ecosystem of touchpoints; from TV and film to theme parks to retail destinations to merchandise — Disney set the bar for making the most out of IP.

But Disney entering its next century means it also leaves behind control of one of its original — and most brand synonymous — characters.

For the first time, Mickey Mouse is set to be owned by... nobody. Stemaboat WIllie, the 1928 film that launched everyone’s favourite mouse, is losing its copyright protection next year, opening up the gate for other creators to use his image.

Of course, this doesn’t include the subsequent evolution of Mickey, which is the Mickey we know and love today, but even that copyright will also be up by the end of the decade.

So with the chains of IP law beginning to unshackle, what does this mean for the future of Disney’s character and brands?

If spun correctly, this could be a winner for Disney’s 100th anniversary. There is arguably no better display of magic than gifting Steamboat Willie to the younger masses and encouraging them to play and write a new story with the character.

In many ways it could serve as a moment of passing the baton to the next generation of storytellers, and an opportunity to gain further cultural reach and relevance.

It’s positive noise that Steamboat Willie could do with. After all, Mickey, in his Steamboat era, wasn’t the exemplary citizen that he is today. In 1928 that version of Mickey was racist, misogynistic and perverted, acting as a tether to the darkside of Disney’s past.

Freeing the character from copyright could encourage people to revisit his actions and use it as a chance to make things right. This makes total sense for a brand that prides itself in making magic available to all.

But handing over control of a distinctive asset that will continue to remain attributable to a brand does come with risks. When Winnie the Pooh’s copyright expired last year, the roster of enchanting, wholesome books and films was joined by a new iteration, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey.

Instead of the cast of the Seven Acre Woods coming together for joyous adventures, Pooh and Piglet embarked on a bloody rampage. Quite a far cry from AA Milne’s vision.

For a brand like Disney, these sorts of risks can leave the door open to all sorts of trouble, taking the brand into places and narratives that can harm and offend.

Disney, famously one of the most litigious businesses in the world when its brand is put at risk — going so far as to threaten nurseries and grieving parents — might baulk at the risk this brings.

But there are a few things working in its favour: one is that Steamboat Willie has been free on YouTube for years, and has no resale value. Another is that any art using Steamboat Willie Mickey won’t be trademarked, so will visibly and obviously not be Disney.

Also, it has the option to help control and encourage the artistic reimaginations of this slightly scarier Mickey Mouse. Disney can and should create a remixable kit people can use to express themselves.

Nike, for example, created Swoosh, a web3 platform that invites users to create, collect and trade Nike products. If users design a shoe model that goes into manufacturing, they’re rewarded with royalties for that product.

This has earned Nike even greater customer loyalty and buy-in by bringing them into the conception-to-manufacturing journey.

Coca-Cola has taken a similar approach turning to loyal customers to contribute towards the creative for billboards to appear on Piccadilly Circus.

Lastly, there’s the key point around brand. If someone does create something that could be confused with their brand, the noise around it reinforces the connection between the character and that brand. It can act as a constant reminder that the original came from one place and one place only.

After all, there really is only one Mickey Mouse.

First published in Campaign Asia.