He is the world's most famous personality, better known in this country than anyone living or dead, real or fictional. Market researchers say his 97% recognition rate in the U.S. edges out even Santa Claus.
He is the one -- and, for now, only -- Mickey Mouse.
As Mickey turns 80 this fall, the most beloved rodent in show business is widely regarded as a national treasure. But he is owned lock, stock and trademark ears by the corporate heirs of his genius creator, Walt Disney.
Brand experts reckon his value to today's Walt Disney Co.. empire at more than $3 billion. Acts of Congress have extended Mickey's copyright so long that they provoked a Supreme Court challenge, making Mickey the ultimate symbol of intellectual property.
All signs pointed to a Hollywood ending with Disney and Mickey Mouse living happily ever after -- at least until a grumpy former employee looked closely at fine print long forgotten in company archives.
Film credits from the 1920s revealed imprecision in copyright claims that some experts say could invalidate Disney's long-held copyright, though a Disney lawyer dismissed that idea as "frivolous."
Although studio executives are not yet hurling themselves from the parapets of Sleeping Beauty's castle, the unexpected discovery raises an intriguing question: Is it possible that Mickey Mouse now belongs to the world -- and that his likeness is usable by anybody for anything?
For the record, any knock-offs would have to make clear that they did not come from Disney, or else risk violating the separate laws that protect trademarks. And the potentially free Mickey is not the most current or familiar version of the famous mouse.
Copyright questions apply to an older incarnation, a rendition of Mickey still recognizable but slightly different. Original Mickey, the star of the first synchronized sound cartoon, "Steamboat Willie," and other early classics, had longer arms, smaller ears and a more pointy nose.
The notion that any Mickey Mouse might be free of copyright restrictions is about as welcome in the Magic Kingdom as a hag with a poisoned apple. Yet elsewhere, especially in academia, the idea has attracted surprising support.
"That 'Steamboat Willie' is in the public domain is easy. That's a foregone conclusion," said copyright scholar Peter Jaszi of American University's Washington College of Law after studying the issue at The Times' request.
The issue has been chewed over by law students as class projects and debated by professors. It produced one little-noticed law review article: a 23-page essay in a 2003 University of Virginia legal journal that argued "there are no grounds in copyright law for protecting" the Mickey of those early films.
Roger Schechter, a George Washington University expert on copyright, called the article's argument "a plausible, solid, careful case." By contrast, a Disney lawyer once threatened the author with legal action for "slander of title" under California law. No suit was filed.