Walt Disney and the Disney group of companies have created some of the most memorable fictional characters in contemporary culture. Twenty-first century characters such as Nemo the clownfish are as beloved as classic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Individuals who wish to use the Disney characters should take care to make legal use of them to avoid infringing Disney's intellectual property rights.
Intellectual Property Protection
Disney protects its characters with trademark and copyright registrations. A trademark protects a brand name, while a copyright protects an original work such as a movie or book. The owner of a trademark or copyright registration for a fictional character can prevent others from using the character without permission. For example, Disney holds trademark and copyright registrations for Snow White, a Disney fairy tale character. In 1989, Disney sued the Academy of Arts and Sciences when the Academy used an entertainer to portray Snow White without Disney's permission in its opening number for an Academy Awards telecast.
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. The official Disney website can help you determine who owns rights to the character you wish to use and how to seek permission to legally use the character. You may receive permission in the form of a letter or an email message. Disney may require an individual or organization that wants to make extended commercial use of Disney characters to enter into a licensing agreement where the user pays Disney for rights to use the character. Disney may also refuse to give you permission to use its characters.
Another way you may be able to legally use Disney characters is to make what the law calls "fair use" of the characters. According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, fair use refers to limited circumstances when it may be permissible to make reference to or reproduce a sample of a protected character without getting permission from Disney. One example of fair use could be a critical review of a Disney movie that included an image of a character from the movie. Another example of fair use involves Disney's 1989 copyright infringement lawsuit related to the use of the character Snow White in an Oscar Awards telecast. Under the fair use doctrine, a law professor could also use a video clip from the Disney movie "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and a video clip from the Oscars telecast to teach law students about intellectual property rights.
Another way to legally use Disney characters could be to use them in what the law refers to as "transformative use." Transformative use requires that you change, or transform, the character enough so that it is no longer a mere copy of the original. The resulting transformation is sometimes called a "derivative work." For example, if a painter created an original oil painting of his family and included the Disney character Tinkerbell as a family member, his use of Tinkerbell would be fair use because of its commentary that the artist considers Tinkerbell a member of his family. The use of Tinkerbell in the painting could be could be characterized as a transformative use, and the painting could be called a derivative work.