It’s no secret that Disney is a massive media conglomerate. It has seen long lasting success since Walt Disney founded it in 1923, allowing it to be nostalgic and meaningful to several generations now, and rack up a long list of franchises, making it one of the most influential media companies of all time. The secret to its success, especially in its early years lies in its ability to adapt old stories available in the public domain and make it their own. Disney is a genius in securing copyrights and even changing copyright law itself to suit its needs. But in 2013, Disney took it a little too far when they tried to copyright Dia de Los Muertos.
In 2012, Disney and Pixar announced plans to make a movie (what would become 2017’s Coco) about Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a tradition observed in Mexico every year on November 1st, which has been celebrated for around 3000 years. It is believed that on Dia de Los Muertos, the border between the spirit world and the land of the living dissolves, allowing spirits of the dead to visit their living loved ones through feasts, music, and dance. It is a celebration of life, and a way to honor those who have passed. It is no surprise then, that only one year later when Disney put a bid into the copyright office to own the rights to “Dia de Los Muertos,” that they faced massive backlash.
According to the copyright application, the trademark was intended to be used for Coco’s merchandising, including food, toys and even cosmetics. Instantly, Disney faced massive backlash online, especially from the Latinx community. A Change.org petition calling for Disney to withdraw its bid garnered 21k signatures within the first few days of this news coming out, and this was just one among the many protests that sparked across social media platforms. The nail on the coffin for Disney would be Lalo Alcaraz’s satirical illustration Muerto Mouse, showing an image of a monstrous Mickey Mouse rampaging in a city with the caption “It’s coming to trademark your cultura!” Within 24 hours of the news and following protests coming out, Disney withdrew its application for the Day of the Dead trademark, with a spokesperson from the company stating: “the trademark intended to protect any potential title of the movie or related activity…since then, it has been determined that the title of the film will change, and therefore we are withdrawing our application for trademark registration.”
While not explicitly said in their statement, it did seem that Disney did learn their lesson from this controversy, including hiring Lalo Alcaraz as a cultural consultant on Coco to prevent making any more culturally insensitive mistakes during its production. But despite Disney’s best efforts to both address and atone for racism and sexism in older films and create a more culturally sensitive image, this move was a big step back. This past July, this controversy would be remembered amid rumors that Disney was seeking to trademark “Loki” for the Marvel TV show of the same name that aired this year. Fortunately, it was just a rumor, but clearly the trademark controversy in 2013 left a sour taste in peoples’ mouths. This whole controversy is just another example of how copyright can go too far. Cultural traditions don’t belong to companies, they belong to people.