In the latest example of the power of social-media backlash, Disney-Pixar announced late yesterday that the company would back off on a move that had generated an online uproar over the last few days.
As the Pixar-centric site Pixartimes.com reports, the studio behind such beloved movies as Toy Story 3 have long made it known that they’re working on a film related to the Latin American holiday Día de Los Muertos—or, Day of the Dead. On May 6, Stitch Kingdom reported that Disney had filed applications to trademark the phrase “Día de Los Muertos,” which some speculated would be movie’s title. The trademark would have covered snacks, audio recordings, jewelry, cosmetics, key chains and lots of other potential merchandise related to the film. It was a move that raised the ire of many who found distasteful the idea of a major media company trying to establish “ownership” of an important cultural event.
The pushback worked: Disney told Fronteras on Tuesday that not only would the trademark filing be withdrawn, but also the movie’s title would be changed.
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But if Disney had not decided to back off, could they have successfully trademarked the name of a holiday? In a way, says Marshall Leaffer, a copyright-law expert and professor at Indiana Law.
“The Day of the Dead can attain a trademark significance if it’s used in a trademarked sense,” he says. “If someone wants to use ‘Day of the Dead’ in describing a particular holiday, under general trademark principles and free speech principles, the trademark owner cannot object to it.”
In short, a trademark—not a copyright; U.S. law doesn’t provide copyright protection for titles—would have protected Disney against others trying to create merchandise that referenced their movie, but it would not have given the company ownership of the idea behind the holiday, or the words used in the phrase. In addition, Disney would probably have had to prove that the phrase “Día de los Muertos” had a specific Pixar-only meaning in order to be successful in applying for a trademark. “We don’t want to give terms to wide a protection if they don’t have any sort of significance for the consumer,” he explains.
Leaffer draws a parallel to the band The Cars: there’s a difference between trying to sell a bootleg Cars t-shirt outside a concert venue (not allowed if they have a trademark) and trying to sell an I Love Cars t-shirt at a Honda dealership (fine). And the same logic would apply to Cars—but the folks at Pixar probably already know about that.