Why Disney Threatened to Sue Daycare Centers

In 1989, Disney did the unthinkable: threaten legal action to not one, not two, but three day care centers. What would make a multi-billion-dollar company, which prides itself on being “The Happiest Place on Earth,” to threaten to file lawsuits? Ultimately, it all came down to one thing: Trademarks.

On the walls of these three Florida day care centers (Very Important Babies Daycare, Good Godmother Daycare, and Temple Messianique) were life-size paintings of Disney characters: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Goofy. When Disney became aware of their existence, they threatened to go to court if the drawings were not removed. Unsurprisingly, there was a public outcry after Disney announced a threat of legal action.

So did Disney have valid reasons to threaten legal action?

Absolutely. Though their decision may be “morally” questionable on the surface, they do present important reasons when looked under the lens of the law. Let’s think about it this way: As a small business owner, you know it takes a lot of time and effort to create an original piece of work, including Trademarks. They’re valuable assets that add distinction and unique qualities to your business. Now imagine if someone used your Trademark freely without consent or monetary payment. What do you get out of this? Nothing.

Here are three legal reasons why Disney decided to threaten to sue three day care centers:

  1. You need to proactively protect your Trademark. In response to the public outcry, a spokesperson for Disney issued a statement, “If [Disney] were to allow [the day care centers] to use the characters, then we would have to allow everyone else to do so. If we don’t protect our Trademarks, we could lose our copyright be out of business.” Disney made an incredibly important point. Protecting your Trademark doesn’t stop the day you complete your registration. No, in fact, though the law and USPTO will protect you if there is ever an instance of Trademark infringement, it is your responsibility to be proactive about maintaining the exclusivity of your Trademark. Without doing so, it will no longer hold the same kind of value if everyone freely uses it.
  1. It’s unfair to those who do pay to be a licensee. At a quick glance, the day care centers seemed to get the short-end of the stick—having to deal with the threat of a lawsuit by a big bully behemoth. But in the world of business, law, and Trademarks, it’s actually not unfair at all. Let’s take for example those companies and individuals that paid to legally use Disney’s Trademarks. Now, imagine if Disney allowed the day care centers to use the very same Trademarks—for free. The other licensees may find this exchange unfair. And it would be. After all, in the end of the fiscal year, these day care centers bring in profit too.
  1. Using a Trademark without a license may suggest affiliation. If the day care centers continued to use the Disney Trademarks, people may naturally think that the day care centers are affiliated with Disney, when in fact, they’re not. The affiliation seems harmless. I mean, they’re daycare centers; how much controversy can they raise? But partnerships are a tricky thing. You want to make sure your ideologies are in sync. If not, you’ll be guilty by association, supporting whatever propaganda your affiliate company may be touting at a certain point.

Have you made your Trademark yet?

As a small business owner, you tackle a lot of things on your own. But when it comes to the Trademark application process, let’s leave it to the experts—for a cheaper, faster, and more successful outcome. With Rocket Lawyer, you can start your Trademark application and even have an attorney help navigate you through the entire process. It’s legal made simple.