Disney and Dia de los Muertos: Intellectual Property in cross-cultural crosshairs

May 10, 2013

Mickey Dia de los MuertosDisney, the great American engineer of childhood dreams, caught some flak recently for trying to trademark the term “Dia de los Muertos.”
It had sought to protect possible future merchandising tie-ins in connection with a movie it is developing about the Nov. 1 holiday that is traditionally celebrated in Mexico and Latin America, but in doing so, it caught the ire of many Hispanics.

(See some beautiful photos of the unique imagery associated with this holiday here. While youare at it, check out the sickening Dia de los Muertos look worn by “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season Five winner Jinkx Monsoon.)

Earlier this week, the House of Mouse announced that it was withdrawing its trademark applications. It said it was because the still-in-development film had changed its name, but suspicious readers could be forgiven for thinking it was because Disney did not want to draw the ire of the increasingly important Hispanic market.

In an online petition to get Disney to drop the trademark applications, the Colorado woman who started the drive wrote that “our spiritual traditions are for everyone, not for companies like Walt Disney to trademark and exploit. I am deeply offended and dismayed that a family-oriented company like Walt Disney would seek own the rights to something that is the rightful heritage of the people of Mexico.” Some 20,000 people signed her petition.

As I read it, the petitioner’s objections overstate the issue — Disney wouldn’t “own” the term outright, but would have legal control over how it’s used in connection with things like cereals, toys, jewelry and other things kids will beg their parents to buy — but then again, it is not my culture that’s being commodified here.

Some online commentators have pointed out that Disney and other entertainment companies haven’t sought to trademark the use of terms like “Christmas” or “Santa Claus” or “Easter Bunny.” To my knowledge, the studio behind the children’s film “Rise of the Guardians,” which featured Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost and the Sandman, did not seek any trademarks with respect to this anglicized folktale characters.

It is hard to deny that cultures borrow from each other, taking what they like and grafting it onto their own belief and value systems. From where I stand, it does not seem like people objected to Disney making a movie about Dia de los Muertos; they just objected to Disney seeking to monetize it and exercise control over the use of its name.

What’s your take here? Is Disney revealing its soullessness by trying to profit from a culture, or are people who understandably have a layperson’s understanding of trademarks overreacting?