Open letter to:
The Walt Disney Company March 26, 2011
500 South Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521-0007
Attention: Robert Iger, President & CEO / John E. Pepper, Jr., Chairman / Anne Sweeney, President of Disney-ABC Television Group and Co-Chair of Disney Media Networks / Andy Bird, Chairman of Walt Disney International / Steve Jobs, Member of The Walt Disney Company’s Board of Directors, co-founder & CEO of Apple Inc., and largest individual Disney shareholder
Cc: David Kappos, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) / António Campinos, President of the European Union agency responsible for registering trade marks and designs (OHIM)
Re.: Stop Disney’s abuse of the Public Domain
Dear Bob, John, Anne, Andy and Steve,
I well remember my first movie theater experience as a young child, Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book, leaving a lasting impression on my mind about the possibilities outstanding filmmaking offers our dreams and imagination. Incidentally, it was the last animated film to be produced by Walt Disney, who died during its production.
In today’s global society, the world keeps moving closer together while unbridled mega corporations still seem to think they own it all. And in a way we have gotten used to them. But who would have expected a legendary benefactor of universal human values like Disney to engage in the sort of patently unfair business practices we have seen over the years?
Consider, for example, Disney’s relentless activities concerning works in the public domain, that marvelous treasure trove of the collective human experience. Previously, fifty years after the death of its author, an original work would become a resource available for anyone who wished to adapt, draw on or build upon it. It’s a brilliant system that opens up the great works of humanity to the next generation of artists and audiences.
Yet despite having been one of its greatest beneficiaries and generating tremendous profits since the early 1920s, Disney seeks to keep its own creations from entering the public domain for as long as possible, successfully lobbying U.S. Congress in the 1990s to extend the term of copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years, a campaign that resulted in the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), or “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”.
And as if The Walt Disney Company’s astonishing ability to influence U.S. and even international legislation were not enough, its ongoing attempts to turn public domain characters into Disney property result in nothing less than Disney’s exclusive right to use them.
The Walt Disney Company currently has a trademark application pending with the US Patent and Trademark Office, filed November 19, 2008, for the name “Snow White”, which would cover all live and recorded movie, television, radio, stage, computer, Internet, news, and photographic entertainment uses, except literature works of fiction and nonfiction. (US Patent and Trademark Office: Snow White trademark status)
We realize that Disney has been pulling these stealthy maneuvers for years with barely a murmur from the public, as most people have been unaware of them or have simply failed to appreciate the potentially sweeping consequences.
But we sincerely hope there will be a public outcry across the globe soon, for if Disney continues its depletion of the public domain – as it has already succeeded in doing within the European Union, snatching up Snow White, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid – there won’t be another Snow White or Pinocchio or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty movie other than Disney’s or with Disney’s permission, ever.
Works in the public domain are, by definition, freely available for public use. Yet, assisted by all too compliant trademark offices around the world, The Walt Disney Company keeps taking some of humanity’s most beloved characters not only from us today, but also generations of children yet to come.
While writing and beginning to develop The True Snow White into a timeless live action movie, we always wondered what was behind the standard industry rumors that Disney effectively “owns” Snow White and will never give her up.
How could Disney substantiate such a claim? Especially today, given the unprecedented number of competing Snow White movie versions that have gone into development since The True Snow White was published online on November 26, 2007: 1. Relativity Media’s The Brothers Grimm: Snow White, 2. Universal Picture’s Snow White and the Huntsman, and 3. Disney’s own contribution titled Snow and the Seven.
There is no way of knowing just how far Queen Hollywood will go in her current Snow White frenzy to reestablish who truly is “the Fairest one of all”. Or if and when Disney will actually take the gloves off regarding its purported “ownership” of the Snow White trademark in Europe – and maybe soon in the United States as well.
In anticipation of this possible struggle, and to ascertain the current state of affairs, The True Snow White sought and was eventually granted trademark status in Austria on June 10, 2008. Next, we proceeded to register European trademark No. 8752404, published in Bulletin 2010/88. However, Disney opposed this trademark registration, as was to be expected, and we have now been given the opportunity to explain our position.
Part of that position is as follows. If The Walt Disney Company wants to act in good faith and operate on fair and equal terms with its creative contemporaries, we suggest that the company:
1. Stop registering trademarks that seize titles and characters of works in the public domain;
2. Release all such trademarks Disney never should have been granted in the first place by voluntarily returning them to the public domain;
3. And change your applications, if you insist on having any rights to public domain fairy tale characters at all, to truthfully stating Walt Disney’s Snow White and so on, as you have already done with Walt Disney’s Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s Cinderella, etc. You understand the concept.
The central point is: What’s the purpose of trademarking “Snow White” without a “Disney” qualifier if not to unfairly eliminate all other competition?
What’s more, we urge the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the European Union agency responsible for registering trade marks and designs (OHIM) and other legislators around the world to stop assisting this abuse by enacting any necessary changes to effectively safeguard works in the public domain from being seized by any party, regardless of claim or legal title. For either the public domain is shared by all or surrendered to a select few just because they always seem to have the necessary means and funds to get their way.
Now, we are experienced enough to know that what we are taking on here may seem like a futile David versus Goliath – or indeed Snow White versus her jealous Stepmother – struggle. At first glance, it always appears easier and safer to just sit back and do nothing. But we are all witnessing greater unjust power structures stumble and fall these days, and surely suffocating global media conglomerates are not immune from such an outcome.
As for me, I don’t know whether the world is ready for The True Snow White to return from her time with the Seven Dwarves and come into her rightful inheritance. But I know that in the end, as always, it will be ordinary men, women and children around the world who, once they take matters into their own hands, determine the future course of events.
In conclusion, let us not make light of a world that is full of injustice as it is. And any added oppression, even in fun and entertainment – such as Disney’s ongoing efforts to keep any updated Snow White from outdoing its 1937 animated version – makes us feel all the smaller and more hopeless about the possibility of one day living in a better one.
No one can ever “own” Snow White, or should be allowed to try to, especially through blatant trademark bullying. Snow White’s legend is centuries old. Its original author or authors are unknown. Both Snow White’s name and her story have become part of our collective heritage in the field of arts and literature.
We deem these points to be so self-evident that they shouldn’t have to be defended time and time again. Indeed, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has just recently requested public comments concerning Trademark Litigation Tactics, and for good reason. When will our modern civilization return to and rebuild a legal world everyone can understand and support?
Of course, The True Snow White is just my own take on the traditional story. I am making no claim that it is or should be the only one. As I said in its preface, anyone is free to either love it or leave it. But it has always been one of my greatest aspirations that generations of children yet to come will be motivated and inspired by Snow White’s adventures as I have been over the years.
My ambition was only to pick up and carry the young princess’s torch. For that is the power of the marvellous creative momentum of the public domain, and the very reason Snow White and many other old stories still exist: The more of us who carry its light, the longer a legend lives on.
I always saw The Walt Disney Company as a fellow traveller in this regard. And I would call for Disney, if I could and anyone would hear me, to appreciate and respect the stories it so casually snatches from the public domain for far more than just their money-making potential.
What in the world could be so terrible about simply returning to plain old fairness and sound business practices? To working for and earning the results of one’s efforts by just means as all of us are expected to? That’s all we ask of the Mickey Mouse empire. Are we asking too much?
With best regards,
Harald Walter Azmann
Author of The True Snow White
You too can do something
● Sign this open letter concerning Disney’s ongoing abuse of the public domain by adding your full name, place and country of residence, and a personal note if you wish in the comments section here.
● What should be done to preserve the public domain as one of humanity’s most important intellectual resources? Are you an expert or do you feel personally concerned? Either way, please tell us about it.
● Forward this question to friends and discuss it in newspaper articles, magazines and social media. Free editorial illustrations can be downloaded here.
● Produce a video, song or any other multimedia performance that will be seen by millions around the world. The most impressive submission wins the world’s first e-book of The True Snow White on one of Steve Jobs’ latest iPads.
● Assist us with legal counsel and donate to The True Snow White’s legal defense costs. Every contribution, large or small, makes a difference. Consider how much just US$1.00 times so many of us in this world could do.
Though not required, please state your full name, city and country of residence so we know where your support is coming from.
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing.”
Don’t just sit back and do nothing. Don’t keep encouraging unbridled global media monopolies to dominate your and your children’s future world of thought and entertainment by creating insurmountable obstacles for everyone else.
Any surplus funds from your donations will be given to charity as we have done in the past, and you’ll be kept informed about their prudent use through this site.
Just a small selection of external links
The following links are provided for convenience in accessing additional public opinion on this subject on the Internet. We have no editorial control over the nature, content or availability of the information you may find at these locations, and assume no responsibility for the content of the linked websites or the views expressed therein. All critical information should be independently verified and any questions directed to their authors or the administrators of these sites. While we make every effort to contact the original source of any content linked to in order to secure permission, we aren’t always successful in doing so. Thus, if you are the author or copyright holder of any such content and prefer not to be linked to from here, please contact us and we’ll respond promptly.
Walt Disney Land Commercial
How many Disney movies are actually original stories?
January 3, 2002
The point is: human creativity cannot occur inside a vacuum. They don’t know it, but in their relentless grab for power they might end up killing the proverbial golden goose. And we’ll end up with a boring world where most of the avenues for creative thought have been roadblocked.
‘Free the Mouse’ for creativity’s sake October 7, 2002
In its long and illustrious history, Disney has been a leading beneficiary of the public domain, that great ocean of metaphors, melodies, images and ideas where original works go for anyone to use once their copyright protections expire. But now Disney and other entertainment giants want to change the rules and keep their own creations away from public use for as long as possible.
Walt Disney understood the value of the public domain
January 15, 2003
Who got robbed? You did. I did. Who won? Endlessly greedy media barons will now collect billions from works that should have long since entered the public domain.
When mice get too big February 29, 2004
Michael Eisner has made it very clear where his priorities lie. He wrote in a 1981 staff memo, “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.” Mickey Mouse has gotten way too huge. He’s not cute anymore. He’s the face of unbridled greed and harmful stereo-types.
Disney Caught Pirating from Public Domain – and Children!
October 15, 2004
When will Disney stop stealing from the public domain? I mean really, it’s just like taking a CD from a record store without paying for it . . . except that the record store owner is dead . . . and well, the store is really the compendium of human knowledge . . . and the CD is part of our collective cultural history.
Disney wants infinite copyright September 24, 2006
Of course, even that misses the real, hard question to put to Disney. That’s this: “Almost all the movies made when the first Mickey cartoon was made are rotting and running to slime. No one can bring them back to life because they can’t even figure out who they belong to, 78 years after the fact. Why should all of those movies vanish so that you, Disney, can go on making money off of less than one percent of the creative works from the 1920s?”
Land-grab in the Magic Kingdom January 30, 2007
This is not trivial. It would be understandable for Disney to try and protect its interpretations of existing characters, but its application for so-called “word marks” implies exclusive rights to use all those characters. If Disney was to obtain such trademarks (which cover “motion picture films”), would it then become impossible to make – or at least market – another one without Disney’s permission? Would it be a copyright lockout via the back door?
Copyright basics explained by Disney Characters July 25, 2007
Disney stories taken from the public domain: 17. Disney stories added to the public domain: 0.
How it really worked August 8, 2008
Meanwhile Disney RAPED the public domain (Little Mermaid, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc…) of everything they could and started flinging lawsuits when other people produced competing works based on the same PUBLIC DOMAIN works.
How Would Walt Disney Market in 2009? December 30, 2008
Walt Disney, the man, was equal parts technological genius and ancient story teller. He drew upon stories that reverberated with our humanity and told them in sizzling new ways that shaped memorable experiences. Simultaneously he knew how to leverage every powerful method of engaging the consumer and he swarmed them with multiple modes of his message always reinforcing the central stories. For example, Snow White was a movie, a ride, a doll, a book, a dress, a television show, a cartoon, and a set of experiences which all were touchstones to the magic of it all.
Walt Disney plagiarized from the public domain? December 28, 2009
It’s called “plagiarized” in this context because Disney took the idea, locked it up (which is ok for a limited time) but then abused copyright law to keep his additions from ever returning to the public domain. Effectively “stealing” it.
Raising brave princesses in a Disneyfied world November 3, 2009
I took my 3-year-old, Lyla, to a Halloween party this weekend. There were nine little girls there. Six of them were dressed as pink fairy princesses. The other three were variations on the theme: an angel, Cleopatra and a purple kitty super princess. How did this happen? A decade ago, the company launched its princess line, blowing new life into old standards like Snow White and creating new ones. It aimed its campaign at girls Lyla’s age.
Why can Disney swipe from the public domain? January 11, 2010
I’ve always wondered why a company like Disney can swipe a story like Cinderella from the public domain, and then copyright it so that no one else can build upon their story, for now and forever. Am I missing something?
Disney applies to trademark “God” February 19, 2010
Well, not really, but surely it is on the corporate agenda. Disney has, however, applied to trademark Princess Aurora, the principal character in many stage, ballet, book, and movie versions of Sleeping Beauty. This is such a ridiculous, over-reaching effort on the part of an unruly conglomerate to grab, monopolize, and illegitimately profit from the use of a character that has been in the public domain since long before Disney ever drew its first pair of mouse ears.
What Disney teaches May 25, 2010
Disney teaches us that it’s OK to steal from the public domain while working hard to ensure that none of your own works enter it.
‘Alice’ Hits $1 Billion Mark As Disney And Other Studios Tap Public Domain Tales May 27, 2010
Disney has come through the rabbit hole and pronounced that the Tim Burton-directed 3D conversion Alice in Wonderland surpassed the $1 billion mark in global box office. For non-sequels, that puts the picture behind only Titanic and Avatar. Given that happy ending, it’s small wonder that Disney and other studios have placed a premium on public domain fairy tales.
Disney attempts to trademark Princess Aurora June 26, 2010
I doubt Disney will be able to enforce their mark against pre-existing ballets and the trademark application does not even try to apply for a mark for literature purposes. There’s also a good chance that the work trademark granted will be limited to something like “Disney’s Princess Aurora.”
When fathers worry about princess culture September 3, 2010
The first mistake was inviting Snow White into our home. It seemed harmless at the time. Somehow, during their preschool adventures, our 3-year-old daughters heard about the alabaster damsel and they were intrigued. So the Disney classic was purchased. Our second mistake was opening the door to Sleeping Beauty. The third mistake was not recognizing the first two mistakes, which is to say, we foolishly let The Little Mermaid make land in the family room.
Plutocracy Hypocrisy September 20, 2010
On the abuse of intellectual property laws by a small group of the wealthy.
Disney built an empire on public domain works October 15, 2010
It’s well known that Walt Disney built his media empire using fairy tales from the public domain. He started with his first feature-length animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. He followed that with Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Sleeping Beauty 1953). Disney put his own spin on all of those tales and created some terrific family entertainment. But today the Disney corporation is one of the staunchest proponents of extending copyright lengths. Whenever Mickey Mouse’s first film “Steamboat Willie” (1928) is nearing the end of its copyright protection, Disney unleashes its army of lobbyists and lawyers to convince lawmakers to extend it.
Free Culture. Chapter One: Creators
From 1790 until 1978, the average copyright term was never more than thirty-two years, meaning that most culture just a generation and a half old was free for anyone to build upon without the permission of anyone else. Today’s equivalent would be for creative work from the 1960s and 1970s to now be free for the next Walt Disney to build upon without permission. Yet today, the public domain is presumptive only for content from before the Great Depression.
Waiting for Waiting for Godot… January 1, 2011
If you live in Europe, January 1st 2011 would be the day when hundreds of authors ranging from Leon Trotsky to Nathanael West emerge into the public domain – where they are freely available for anyone to use, republish, translate or transform. What is entering the public domain in the United States? Sadly, not a single published work is entering the public domain this year. Or next year. Or the year after. In fact, in the United States, no publication will enter the public domain until 2019. We are the first generation to deny our own culture to ourselves. Almost no work created during your lifetime will, without conscious action by its creator, become available for you to reproduce or build upon. It didn’t have to be this way.
When do works enter the public domain? January 5, 2011
The public domain won’t grow again because of copyright expiration until 2019 – unless Congress extends the copyright term again. And you can bet that special interests are lined up to lobby for that extension when the time comes. The public domain status of Mickey Mouse remains untested in court. People tend to be very afraid of Disney lawyers. I can’t imagine why.
Public Domain Character
Given Congress’ willingness to extend copyright duration any time Hollywood demands it, it is entirely possible that – in America at least – the pool of public domain characters has reached its maximum size and will grow no larger, except by accident or oversight. 2010 marked a year where no new additions were made to public domain in America from works with expiring copyrights, a statistic which will repeat for several more years unless the law changes appropriately.
Links to relevant documents
The True Snow White (245377) 10.06.2008 Austria ● registered
The True Snow White (8752404) 06.04.2010 Europe ● pending
Disney’s opposition (1710063) 21.12.2010 ● pending
Exclusive Disney European trademarks:
Search a European trade mark (OHIM)
Snow White (5235502) 02.08.2006 ● registered
Pinocchio (5239223) 03.08.2006 ● registered
Cinderella (5238118) 03.08.2006 ● registered
Alice in Wonderland (5618251) 16.01.2007 ● registered
Peter Pan (5235049) 02.08.2006 ● registered
Sleeping Beauty (5235205) 02.08.2006 ● registered
The Little Mermaid (414193) 20.12.1996 ● registered
Exclusive Disney U.S. trademarks:
Search a U.S. trade mark (USPTO)
Snow White (77618057) 19.11.2008 ● pending
Walt Disney’s Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs (75544254) 27.08.1998 ● registered
Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (75545690) 27.08.1998 ● registered
Walt Disney’s Dumbo (75544253) 27.08.1998 ● registered
Walt Disney’s Bambi (75544252) 27.08.1998 ● registered
Cinderella (77130148) 13.03.2007 ● registered
Cinderella (77098334) 02.02.2007 ● registered
Cinderella (74020377) 16.01.1990 ● registered
Walt Disney’s Cinderella (75543711) 27.08.1998 ● registered
Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (75544251) 27.08.1998 ● registered
Walt Disney’s Peter Pan (75544250) 27.08.1998 ● registered
Sleeping Beauty (77197925) 05.06.2007 ● registered
Sleeping Beauty (77173609) 04.05.2007 ● pending
Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) (77130191) 13.03.2007 ● pending
Sleeping Beauty (77098498) 02.02.2007 ● registered
Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) (77098465) 02.02.2007 ● registered
Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (75543891) 27.08.1998 ● registered
Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book (75543712) 27.08.1998 ● registered
Ariel (The Little Mermaid) (77098289) 02.02.2007 ● registered