The message is clear: Don't mess with Mickey.

Or Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Roger (Rabbit), for that matter.Walt Disney's famed characters are so omnipresent in our lives we tend to think of them as public property. They're not. Even so, could donning a Mickey Mouse T-shirt possibly be a crime?

It is if the Walt Disney Company didn't authorize - and collect royalties on - the shirt.

Ever since Walt Disney lost the rights to Oswald the Rabbit in the early days of his career, the Disney organization has been zealous in its pursuit of pirates - the industry name for those who would make money off someone else's creation and reputation.

And the fact that Mickey Mouse is now in his 60s and is probably more instantly recognizable worldwide than any mere human, living or dead, has not dimmed the zeal of Disney's cadre of lawyers dedicated to stomping out piracy where they find it - whether in major department stores or hawked by street corner vendors.

The latest to learn this truth is a group of more than 75 Chicago residents who are defendants in a lawsuit filed this week by Disney claiming unauthorized use of its characters on clothing, watches and other merchandise - the 19th such lawsuit the company has brought just since 1985.

The suit charges copyright infringement, violation of the Lanham Act and unfair competition. It seeks an injunction against further distribution or sale of the items plus treble damages based on "willful infringement."

Total damages cited exceed $1 million.

"This anti-piracy program continues as one of our top priorities," said Paul Pressler, vice president of Disney Merchandise Licensing.

"Our characters are the foundation of our business and project the image of our company, so it's imperative that we control who uses them and how they are used."

Pressler said he wants manufacturers and retailers to understand that "we're very serious about this. We want to persuade them not to deal in pirated merchandise."

Some 700 retailers - not including the 75 named this week - have come to understand that over the past three years. That's the number of "infringers" named in the 18 lawsuits Disney has brought in that period.

No Utah businesses are included in the 700.