An Analysis of Intellectual Property of Disney and their use in special events
Written By: Aishath Alsan Sadiq
The Walt Disney Company with its 96 years of being incorporated has risen to be a major household name and a part of almost every individual’s childhood. The familiar cartoons, quirky characters, dreamy theme parks, games, tv shows, live shows and unique merchandise has put the company as the front runner of the entertainment industry amassing a wealth of almost 130 billion dollars.
Disney’s journey to the top has not been easy and even ‘the happiest place on earth’ has faced some sad realities in today’s competitive business with regard to their intellectual property rights. It is a known fact that copyright law grants the author or the creator the exclusive right to use, distribute, communicate among other thinks all his work to the public. It is also a fact that intellectual property rights of copyright and trademark are not perpetual in nature.
However, surprisingly enough, Disney has vastly influenced the domain of Copyright Law in the US which many people have claimed to be a political controversy. Nevertheless, Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 has proved as a boon to Disney by providing the ‘Mickey Mouse’ character with copyright protection till the year 2023. Similarly, the protection of other characters has also been extended since their inception.
It is no secret that Disney is protective over its intellectual properties. They hold numerous trademarks, copyrights and even patents over their characters, amusement park rides etc. In fact, Disney has become so particular over the use of their treasured characters that it has made strict policies and regulations regarding the use of anything associated with Disney through any platform such as online merchandising, retail and even private events.
The current scenario is that even the most exclusive or the most private events such as birthday parties, weddings, corporate events cannot use Disney characters or merchandised unless it is legally permitted. From the costumes to the cake, any material associated or resembles Disney be contribute towards infringement unless the necessary permission from the rights holder or his agent is acquired.
The only means through which Disney may be used is through obtaining permission from Disney Enterprises usually over their website or through other licensing agents. An extended commercial use of ‘Disney’ material may require obtaining a licensing agreement.
A landmark case with regard to using Disney Characters took place in the year 2017 between Disney, Marvel, and Lucasfilm Entertainment Company and Characters for Hire LLC, a company that provides costumed characters for parties and events. Disney claimed that the company founded by Nick Sarelli i.e. Characters for Hire LLC were diluting and tarnishing the name of Disney through sending dressed up individuals to various events. Specifically, Disney complained that the company was deviously throwing off their customers through sending Disney like characters like Leia from Star Wars, Elsa from Frozen and Chewbacca by merely renaming them as the princess, big hairy guy etc.
Disney suffered a huge blowback through this case as the judges ruled in favour of Sarelli. The court found no evidence as to suggest that there was any confusion as to the origin, source, affiliation, or sponsorship of Characters for Hire’s services. Furthermore, there was no concrete evidence to suggest that there was any loss to reputation to Disney.
Even through Disney requires obtaining certain permissions and licenses, fair use and transformative use can be applied in order to legally use Disney characters. To be more specific, Characters for Hire LLC has explicitly stated on their website that all their costumed characters are generic/inspired and are not affiliated, licensed or associated with any corporation or trademark.
The recent times and various cases have shown that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Disney to put up a fight for the protection of their famous characters. The expiration of Disney’s copyright would change the industry tremendously. Although, it would prove fatally injurious to the business of Disney, this could mean a smoother sailing for businesses associated with events like birthdays and weddings. After all, there is no kid in the world who wouldn’t want their childhood hero or heroine making an appearance on their special days.
Only time will tell what the fate of Disney is in the years to come. With the expiration of their copyright on the integral character of ‘Mickey Mouse’ one wonders whether it would finally be available to the public domain. The world wonders whether Disney has any more tricks up their sleeves to protect their intellectual properties. Whatever the outcome in the near future is, it would definitely be a game changer for intellectual property rights and businesses worldwide.
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