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, so 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.

Disney Anti-Piracy

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:

  • Titles
  • Feature-length motion pictures
  • Characters
  • Music
  • Games
  • Publications
  • 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:

The Walt Disney Company Antipiracy Group

500 South Buena Vista Street

Burbank, California 91521-0644 

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