Hard as it may be to believe now, the conglomeration known as Disney has its origins as an animation studio trying to make its way in the early days of Hollywood. Harder still to believe, given that Disney now seems to own much of the existing popular intellectual property that exists, was that the nascent studio owes no small amount of its success and survival to IP that it didn’t own. Sure, Mickey Mouse was a Walt Disney original, but Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the film that stands as the company’s first crowning achievement, comes from a German fairy tale that the Brothers Grimm put to paper. Cinderella similarly has its origins as a folk story long before Disney decided to make it an animated film.
Disney of course had its own original ideas and films, but looking through a list of movies the studio released, it’s hard to argue that they didn’t benefit from preexisting ideas that were in the public domain. You’d have to imagine that is part of the reason that people are dismayed at what they see as the company’s attempts to trademark Loki, the Norse god who predates Steamboat Willie by about a few centuries.
From the Washington Post comes a story about the backlash to the trademark, which, as with many stories taking place largely on the internet, may be little more than a tempest in a teapot. Some individuals tried to sell Loki merchandise on the site Redbubble and had their listings taken down on the grounds of potential trademark infringement. The actions were taken preemptively by Redbubble rather than from a complaint made by Disney, although it’s easy to see Redbubble’s actions as a way of avoiding the potential wrath of Disney. The creators, as you might imagine, were unhappy, both with Redbubble for removing what they saw as items they had a legitimate right to sell, and at Disney for trademarking something that they don’t believe belongs to them.
That is where things get somewhat more complicated. Yes, Disney does have a trademark on Loki and several of the other Norse gods depicted onscreen and in the pages of the assorted Thor comics, but that trademark is limited to those interpretations and depictions, and isn’t a trademark on the gods themselves in the broader historical context. Any company, regardless of how rich and powerful, would have a hard time staking a claim to rights over historical creations.
The issue, then, is fear of a different type of power: the megacorporation. As with most takedown notices, the intermediary platform is far more fearful of running afoul of rightsholders than they are of angering a few users, and so will err on the side of trampling those users’ rights rather than risk violating those of big businesses. Disney doesn’t have to take action in these instances, knowing that fear of repercussions gets others to do it on their behalf. If that doesn’t sound like the domain of old world deities, I don’t know what does.