Legal Use of the Disney Characters

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

Legal Use of the Disney Characters

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

Disney characters, new and old, are iconic and valuable. Disney holds intellectual property rights in its characters that allow the company to prevent many uses of character names and images. However, it's still possible to use Disney characters' images or names if you obtain a license or use the character in a legal manner.

Stuffed animal versions of Minnie and Mickey Mouse

Broad Rights

Disney holds numerous copyrights and trademarks that restrict the use of the names and images of its characters. The copyrights give Disney the exclusive right to use the characters. For example, Disney can prevent others from using Elsa, a character from "Frozen," in other movies, TV shows, or books.

The trademarks allow Disney to prevent others from using certain fixed images of characters and many character names in a manner that could cause consumers to think the product or service in question was from Disney. For example, Disney could prevent someone from using the name “Minnie Mouse" on the box of a plush toy mouse.

Not only does Disney hold substantial intellectual property rights in its characters, it strictly enforces those rights. A simple Google search reveals a host of lawsuits brought by Disney against those who tried to use its characters' names or likeness in infringing manners without permission.

License to Use

The safest way to use Disney characters' images or names is to obtain permission from Disney to use the image or name. This permission to use the name or image is called a license. Licenses come in the form of a contractual agreement that lays out exactly what types of uses of the intellectual property are permitted and the price the person or business obtaining permission will pay for the uses.

Disney has put substantial time and money into developing its characters. To protect the work it has put in and the value of its characters, it is very restrictive regarding to whom Disney grants licenses and under what terms. Prices for licensing Disney characters are not readily available to the public. However, as a general rule in licensing, the broader the rights granted, the more expensive a license will be.

Disney's licensing website provides instructions for requesting a license and answers to frequently asked questions about licensing its characters.

Noninfringing Use

For those who cannot or do not want to obtain a license from Disney, use of characters is still possible if the use does not infringe on Disney's intellectual properties. Whether a use infringes is a case-by-case determination that can be legally complicated. Despite the many lawsuits related to use of Disney characters, there is still a great deal of uncertainty. However, there are some general guidelines that can help.

A Disney character's name or image can be used without a license if it is a fair use. "Fair use" is a term that broadly refers to using the image in a limited manner that promotes freedom of expression. There is no set list of fair uses under the law, but the most common fair uses are parody, criticism, teaching, and transformative use. The degree of use is also considered. For example, use of a 15-second clip from a Disney movie as part of a critique of the movie might be fair use, but a one-hour clip used in the same manner probably would not be.

A good example of fair use is MAD Magazine's Disney-related cartoons. Over the years, it has published a number of cartoons spoofing Disney characters without receiving lawsuits from Disney. Disney presumably believes that the cartoons are fair use as a parody. The cartoons notably never used the exact character formation—only enough for its readers to make the connection between the cartoon and the Disney characters.

With careful research, it's possible to use even iconic Disney characters in a way that complies with intellectual property rights. If your use does not fall into the noninfringing category, Disney offers useful information and forms for requesting a license for use of its characters on its website.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.