The Disney Group takes Disney trademark infringement seriously and has copyright and trademark registrations to protect its characters.7 min read
Updated July 8, 2020:
Legal Use and Intellectual Property Protection of Disney Characters
The Disney Group takes Disney trademark infringement seriously and has copyright and trademark registrations to protect its characters. Anyone who wants to use the characters from the Disney franchise must follow all legal requirements to avoid infringing on the company's intellectual property rights. The Disney Group and Walt Disney have created a series of extremely memorable and beloved fictional characters in modern culture. Some of the newer characters, such as Nemo the clownfish, are just as beloved as Disney's classic characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.
A copyright exists to protect original works, such as books and movies, while trademarks protect brand names. A copyright or trademark owner for a character will help to prevent anyone else from using the same character without the owner's permission. For example, Disney filed a lawsuit against the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1989 when an entertainer portrayed the character of Snow White as part of an opening act of the Academy Awards telecast. The Academy did not have permission from Disney to use the character and faced repercussions.
Permission to Use Disney Characters
In order to use the characters legally, you must request permission from Disney Enterprises. Multiple corporate entities of Disney own many of the intellectual property rights of Disney characters. To learn more about which Disney entity owns the character you want to use, visit the Disney website. This site will also include information about how to request permission to use the Disney character. You may receive permission from Disney by email or mail.
If you or your company wants to use Disney characters on a long-term basis, Disney might require a licensing agreement, which involves the payment for the rights to use the characters. Disney can also decline to give permission for the use of its characters.
Fair Use of Disney Characters
One of the potential loopholes for using Disney's characters is referred to as fair use. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) allows some limited circumstances in which an entity can reproduce a sample of or make reference to a protected character. This policy, called fair use, doesn't require Disney's permission.
For example, if a movie review included an image of one of the characters, this might be considered fair use. In the example of the Academy Awards telecast, Disney filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement due to the use of Snow White in the opening act. Based on the doctrine of fair use, a professor of law could show video clips of both the Academy Awards telecast and the movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” as part of a lesson about intellectual property protection and rights.
Transformative Use of Disney Characters
You could also legally use Disney's characters under the transformative use law. The transformative use law requires that you transform or change the character to ensure that it isn't an identical copy. After changing the character, the resulting product may be referred to as a derivative work.
One example might be an artist who creates an original oil painting of a family, which includes Tinkerbell. In this case, using the Tinkerbell character as a member of the family may qualify the piece as fair use. Using Tinkerbell in the piece of art could also be considered a transformative use of the character, and the completed painting might be referred to as a derivative work.
All intellectual property rights on the brands, characters, titles, and other properties are owned by the Walt Disney Company and its affiliates.
Disney's anti-piracy clause restricts:
- Feature-length motion pictures
- Animated productions
- Other elements from Disney productions
The Disney Group's Rights
In order to ensure Disney can continue providing quality entertainment that measures up to its previous standards and the expectations of its customers, the company protects its rights. In order to prevent their brand from becoming diluted, Disney wants to be notified of cases of infringement. Any possible infringements of Disney's rights can be reported via:
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Phone: 818-560-3300 (voicemail box)
- Mail: The Walt Disney Company Antipiracy Group, 500 South Buena Vista Street, Burbank, CA 91521-0644
Examples of Lawsuits for Disney Trademark Infringement
Disney Sues Lightsaber Academy (2016)
Probably everybody who has watched a Star Wars movie has wanted to swing a light-saber around like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Michael Brown most likely had this in mind when he established the Lightsaber Academy. However, Disney, which owns the Star Wars franchise, was not pleased with this business venture.
Before it was sold to Disney, Lucasfilm did not challenge every unlicensed Star Wars venture it was aware of. For example, when Lucasfilm found out about Charles Ross' “One Man Star Wars Trilogy” stage show, it even invited the actor to perform the show for its arts executives. Disney, however, is a different company in that it places more importance on controlling its brand.
The Hollywood Reporter reported that Michael Brown had many businesses that used the Star Wars trademark, such as the Lightsaber Academy, Thrills and Skills, and New York Jedi. After sending multiple cease and desist letters to Brown, Disney eventually filed a complaint with a federal court in California.
In the complaint, it said that the defendant was regularly using the Lucasfilm trademarks in connection with its business activities without authorization. One of the infringing activities was the use of a logo that is almost identical to the trademarked Jedi Order logo. The logo is round in shape, has six wing-like shapes that curve upward, and an eight-pointed star that features elongated points at the top and bottom that form a vertical line. Fans of Star Wars who are familiar with the logo can easily tell that the two logos are indeed very similar.
After acquiring multiple intellectual properties, Disney has established itself as one of the world's largest entertainment companies. If anybody has a good business idea that involves the use of Disney trademarks, the best thing to do is to consult the company's lawyers first.
Disney Sues a Family-Owned Small Business (2008)
David and Marisol Chaveco, a couple from Clermont, Florida, own a small party business. They became national news when Disney filed a lawsuit against them for trademark infringement, seeking damages worth $1 million. They allegedly committed infringement after they advertised the availability of two costumes for parties on their business website. The costumes, which were purchased on eBay, bore a close resemblance to Disney's trademarked characters Tigger and Eeyore.
Since Disney is very determined to protect its trademarks and intellectual properties, its attorneys were quick to act. The lawyers sent the couple three letters demanding a total of seven items. One of the demands was a request for the couple to send the costumes to Disney, where they will be destroyed. The couple responded by meeting six of the seven requests. Instead of sending the costumes to Disney, they sent them back to the eBay seller to get a refund. As a result of that, Disney filed a lawsuit against the couple for $1 million, plus legal expenses.
Opinions on the lawsuit were split. Some saw Disney as a giant corporation bullying a small family business, while others said the couple knew the consequences of their actions and deserved the lawsuit. The couple defended themselves by saying that Disney was not even in their thoughts when they bought the costumes. If they had known that their actions would lead to a lawsuit, they would not have purchased the costumes. They only saw the costumes as a tiger and a donkey and did not have the intention of impersonating anything.
However, many people were not convinced by the couple's statements and said that they would not have been sued if they had met all of Disney's requests. Instead, they tried to recover their investment, which was $500 plus shipping, by returning the costumes. Consequently, they had to face a much greater loss.
Disney contends that it has the legal right to prevent intentional and willful infringement of its trademarked properties so that its characters will not be misused. In addition, it said that it has been notified of the unauthorized use of its characters in the past. Without strong licensing agreements, the company will not be able to control the nature and quality of the performance, the costumes' quality, or the background or quality of the individuals who are delivering the performance.
When Is Unauthorized Use Not Trademark Infringement?
In the U.S., individuals and companies that hold federally registered trademarks have the legal right to file lawsuits against other parties who use their trademarks without authorization if the use can cause confusion to existing or potential customers. If the products or services from the unauthorized user come from or are endorsed by the holder of the registered trademark, a lawsuit can be filed for trademark infringement. However, there are two exceptions to this: nominative fair use and functional use.
Nominative fair use is a concept that is similar in some ways to a copyright's fair use exception, which permits certain uses of copyrighted work without authorization or payment. These uses include parody, news reporting, and other uses that have been determined by Congress and the courts to be protected under the First Amendment, not undermine the market for the copyrighted work, or a combination of both.
Basically, if an individual is unable to say what he or she wishes to say without using a certain portion of the copyrighted work, then he or she is allowed to use as much of the work as needed to say it.
If the use of a trademark is functional, it may not constitute trademark infringement even if it is unauthorized. Functional use is somewhat similar to fair use. If a person is using the trademark for purposes other than letting the public know the source of products or services, the use may be considered functional.
If you need help with Disney trademark infringement, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.
Will Disney sue me for copyright infringement? ›
Disney is very strict when it comes to copyright infringement. If they believe you are infringing on their copyrights, they will send you a cease and desist letter. If you don't comply with the cease and desist, Disney may sue you for copyright infringement.How does Disney determine copyright infringement? ›
- Email: email@example.com.
- Voicemail: 818-560-3300.
In order to use Disney's characters, you must first get their permission. Legal Zoom says: “One way to legally use Disney characters is by getting permission to use them from Disney Enterprises. A variety of Disney corporate entities own the intellectual property rights to Disney characters.Does Disney own the phrase Hakuna Matata? ›
One such example is Disney's trademark on 'Hakuna Matata'. 'Hakuna Matata' is a word used and spoken by the Swahili people. Disney got the word registered and claimed the trademark. The US Patent and Trademark Office granted the trademark on the word 'Hakuna Matata'.Has anyone gone to jail for copyright infringement? ›
It's certainly possible to go to jail for violating copyright law, as long as the violation is willful and involves specific kinds or amounts of infringement.How serious is copyright infringement? ›
Downloading or uploading copyrighted work without authority constitutes an infringement. Willful copyright infringement can result in criminal penalties including imprisonment of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000 per offense. Copyright infringement can also result in civil judgments.Can Disney keep Mickey Mouse out of public domain? ›
There would be minimal appetite by Republicans in Congress to reward Disney with a copyright extension. The Mickey Mouse we recognize today, like this image from Fantasia (1940), will still have copyright protection until 2036. As it stands, Steamboat Willie will enter the public domain on January 1, 2024.Why is Disney so strict with copyright? ›
Why is Disney so strict with copyright? Disney's intellectual property is enormously valuable to them, and so they vigorously defend their copyright when others infringe it. If they permitted people to use their intellectual property without authorization and compensation, the property would lose value.Can I make Disney shirts for personal use? ›
Copyright and trademark law says that you can't make Disney items without a license. However, buying items, then reselling them is legal under the first-sale doctrine – you don't need anyone's permission.Is it legal to sell Disney shirts on Etsy? ›
A lot of people believe it isn't an infringement issue to sell products that incorporate Disney characters or use a Disney character's name in their product name. However, any item being sold that incorporates Disney's copyrighted or trademarked material is illegal.
What Disney characters are no longer copyrighted? ›
Shepard are what is now considered public domain (which include original iterations of Winnie-the-Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Christopher Robin). Tigger! There's another character introduced in 1928 whose copyright is about to expire: Mickey Mouse.Can I draw Disney characters and sell them? ›
It is illegal to draw and sell Disney characters (in fact, it is illegal just to draw and give them away or display them publicly) without a license from The Walt Disney Company.Did Disney trademark Dia de los Muertos? ›
The backlash was hard and it was swift after word spread yesterday that the Walt Disney Company filed to trademark the term "Dia de los Muertos" for an upcoming film. Dia de los Muertos (or "Day of the Dead) is a centuries-old Mexican holiday that celebrates the lives and memories of loved ones who have passed away.Does Disney own the word Jedi? ›
No, but they are trademarks. Copyright protects original creative works. You cannot copyright a word or a phrase. Trademarks protect a logo, slogan, or a brand or product name.What does Jambo mean Disney? ›
If you've ever taken a stroll through the Africa side of Disney's Animal Kingdom, you are probably already familiar with this familiar greeting. Jambo! It's a Swahili word that means hello and you are sure to be greeted with a warm Jambo!Should I be worried about a copyright infringement notice? ›
If you fail to respond to a notice, you may be sued. Copyright infringement penalties can be civil and criminal and include: Statutory damages between $750 and $30,000 per piece of work infringed upon. Civil penalties of up to $150,000 per piece if willful infringement is found.How do I not get caught for copyright infringement? ›
Seek permission from the owner before using a work that isn't yours. Do not rely on the symbol defense; a missing © is not required and will not hold up in a copyright claim. Assume any and all materials found on the internet are copyrighted.How do I get out of copyright infringement? ›
You can typically request a court order demanding the infringing party to immediately stop using the copyrighted material and ask for money damages (that is, monetary compensation) for any actual harm that has occurred as a direct result of the infringement.What is the most common infringement? ›
Image and text copyright are two common types of infringement. The moment you create an original image, whether it's a selfie or a majestic landscape, you automatically own the rights to that image.What is the punishment for copyright infringement for first time? ›
What are the punishments for a criminal offence under the copyright law? The minimum punishment for infringement of copyright is imprisonment for six months with the minimum fine of Rs. 50,000/-. In the case of a second and subsequent conviction the minimum punishment is imprisonment for one year and fine of Rs.
How many years do you get for copyright infringement? ›
As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.Will Disney lose the rights to Mickey Mouse in 2024? ›
The beloved mouse that is nearly a century old will soon enter public domain — the original Mickey Mouse's copyright expires in 2024. This anthropomorphic mouse is recognizable even by the silhouette of his ears and, in some ways, has been the face of The Walt Disney Co. since his 1928 creation.Is Disney losing rights to Mickey Mouse? ›
Mickey's Copyright Adventure: Early Disney Creation Will Soon Be Public Property. The version of the iconic character from “Steamboat Willie” will enter the public domain in 2024. But those trying to take advantage could end up in a legal mousetrap.Is Disney Winnie the Pooh public domain? ›
Winnie the Pooh is in the public domain
The characters of A. A. Milne's 1926 classic Winnie the Pooh are free to use legally without repercussion. US copyright law means that works of authors are avalable to use either 70 years after the author's death or 95 years after publication.
In order to use the characters legally, you must request permission from Disney Enterprises. Multiple corporate entities of Disney own many of the intellectual property rights of Disney characters. To learn more about which Disney entity owns the character you want to use, visit the Disney website.Can Disney renew Mickey Mouse copyright? ›
No, Disney cannot renew the copyright for Mickey Mouse. The copyright will expire by law in 2023. Disney cannot obtain a Mickey Mouse copyright extension. However, Disney also still owns trademarks for Mickey Mouse, which do not expire in 2023.Can you make and sell Mickey ears? ›
You cannot legally make and sell any product with Disney lyrics, quotes, or characters on it without permission from The Walt Disney World Company.Does Disney sell 3X shirts? ›
Disneystore.com also has some large clothing. You can put your size in the search field and it will pull up everything that has your size. Enter XL, XXL, 3X, or 4X.Can I sell Disney Cricut projects? ›
The only way to legally sell anything with a Disney image on it is to request permission directly from Disney. You can do that HERE.Do you get a free shirt if you get dress coded at Disney? ›
While Disney doesn't guarantee Guests a free shirt, many Guests who wore clothing that went against Disney's code reported benefiting from a magical moment. Starting in May, Guests who didn't intentionally violate the dress code said that Disney Parks were no longer giving away free shirts.
What happens if you get a copyright infringement notice on Etsy? ›
When a user is reported for copyright infringement, Etsy will remove the listing or store in question and notify the seller via email. Since the report constitutes a DMCA removal, the seller will have an opportunity to file a counter notice.How to sell Disney shirts without copyright? ›
You can't sell Disney-related apparel. You can sell fairy tale-inspired merchandise as long as you don't copy Disney's art. Characters such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc are public domain. Just come up with your own designs and dialogue.Can you sell Harry Potter inspired art? ›
If you're basing your work off of ideas, characters, books, movies, or anything else that another person created, then you're putting yourself at risk for copyright infringement.What will enter public domain in 2023? ›
- The Tower Treasure (The Hardy Boys, #1) by Franklin W. ...
- The House on the Cliff (The Hardy Boys, #2) by Franklin W. ...
- The Secret of the Old Mill (The Hardy Boys, #3) by Franklin W. ...
- The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.
- Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway.
- Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forester.
Bouncing tiger Tigger, who made his debut in the 1928 book "The House on Pooh Corner", will jump into the public domain when the character's copyright expires Jan. 1, 2024. Walt Disney's character Mickey Mouse, as depicted in his 1928 short cartoon "Steamboat Willie", will enter the public domain on Jan. 1, 2024.Why is Disney losing Winnie the Pooh? ›
Why is Disney losing Winnie the Pooh? On Jan. 1, 2022, numerous works entered the public domain, including A.A. Milne's original Winnie-the Pooh stories. Although Disney's version of Pooh is protected by copyright, the company no longer exclusively owns the rights to Winnie the Pooh.Can I sell Winnie the Pooh images? ›
Winnie-the-Pooh is now part of the public domain and the original work — the story, the setting, the characters, etc. — can be used by anyone for virtually any purpose.Is the Mickey Mouse silhouette copyrighted? ›
Everything related to Mickey Mouse (including his ears because that's part of his character design) is copyrighted by Disney, meaning that you can draw them and buy items with his ears on them, but you're not allowed to sell merchandise with it unless you work for Disney.What characters are not copyrighted? ›
For characters that were created before 1923, the copyright has expired, and they are part of the public domain. For characters that were created after 1923, you need to check if the author has assigned the copyright to someone else or if it's been registered with the US Copyright office.Did Disney try to copyright Cinco de Mayo? ›
Disney hoped to secure the rights to the title “Day of the Dead” and such themed merchandise as fruit preserves, fruit-based snacks, toys, games, clothing, footwear, backpacks, clocks and jewelry. But the Latino community raised a ruckus about the application on social media.
Who was Disney sued by? ›
Celador Entertainment — the British company that created the show — sued Disney, alleging that there were some unpaid revenues from the show and related merchandise they were owed.When did Disney stop owning Celebration? ›
Disney sold the downtown to private investors in January 2004. Celebration was meant to be a place to live and work.Can I draw Darth Vader and sell it? ›
Only the original creator can use any of the characters and nobody else is allowed unless been given permission or you pay royalties. However, many are still selling fan art without permission and get away with it as they do not get too widespread with their work.Is the name r2d2 trademarked? ›
R2-D2 Trademark of LUCASFILM ENTERTAINMENT COMPANY LTD.Is Baby Yoda owned by Disney? ›
Baby Yoda (like the terms “Star Wars,” “The Mandalorian,” and “Yoda”) is owned by Disney, and the company has the legal right to enforce its intellectual property and prevent others from profiting off its work.What does DD mean in Disney? ›
DD or DTD – Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs) DDP – Disney Dining Plan (available Disney resort guests) DHS or HS – Disney's Hollywood Studios Theme Park.What does the 33 stand for in Disney? ›
Club 33 is named after its address in New Orleans Square: 33 Royal Street. Inspired by the VIP lounges that Walt Disney first witnessed at the 1964 World's Fair, Club 33 opened in May of 1967 as a private arena within the park where Walt could entertain important visitors.What is China Disney called? ›
Shanghai Disneyland (Chinese: 上海迪士尼乐园; Pinyin: Shànghǎi díshìní lèyuán) is a theme park located in Chuansha New Town, Pudong, Shanghai, China, that is part of the Shanghai Disney Resort.Do you get sued for copyright infringement? ›
If you fail to respond to a notice, you may be sued. Copyright infringement penalties can be civil and criminal and include: Statutory damages between $750 and $30,000 per piece of work infringed upon. Civil penalties of up to $150,000 per piece if willful infringement is found.What happens if Disney loses copyright? ›
Should the copyright protection expire, Mickey will enter the public domain, meaning people would freely be able to use the character in their films and books, provided it not infringe Disney's trademark.
Does Disney allow copyright? ›
Disney has no copyright recourse, as long as the filmmaker adheres to the 1926 material and does not use any elements that came later. (Pooh's recognizable red shirt, for instance, was added in 1930.)Is it hard to prove copyright infringement? ›
However, to avoid copyright disputes you must be able to prove that you are the original copyright owner of your creative work and when that work was completed. This can actually be more difficult to prove than you first think, especially when you've created the work yourself.How do you argue copyright infringement? ›
- Fair use doctrine.
- Proof the work was independently created and not copied.
- Innocence (proving there was no reason to believe the work was copyrighted)
- The use is with a license agreement in place (this can shift liability to the licensor)