A Gallant Disney Rescues Snow White from Potential Abuse

As of last month, Disney Enterprises, Inc. has a trademark (their application status changed to Publication/Issue Review Complete) with the US Patent and Trademark Office for the words "Snow White" that would cover all live and recorded media uses, except literature works of fiction and nonfiction.

To be sure, Disney popularized Snow White in the U.S. with its 1938 release of the fully animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, later chosen by the American Film Institute as the best all time of its genre.

Looking beyond the headlines one again sees in action Disney’s hydra-like protection schemes (for another example, see the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998, deridedly called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act)). Disney was quick to defend the honor of Snow White, the character, in 1989, when it filed suit against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, alleging unauthorized use (violating copyright and unfair competition laws and diluting the trademark [a the time a state law issue]) of its Snow White character in what it called an “unflattering opening number of the nationally televised Oscar awards ceremony.”

The live show began with an actress (Eileen Bowman) as Snow White being interviewed in the Shrine Auditorium lobby. Miss Bowman then sang spoofs of popular songs rewritten to parody the Oscars.

The dispute ended in an apology, but clearly Disney saw the need for more protection. What angered Disney more was an x-rated, Australian advertisement for Jamieson's Raspberry Ale, which depicted Snow White (renamed "Ho" White) blowing smoke rings while underneath the sheets with seven semi-clad dwarfs.

Here’s the irony. As Harold Waolter Azmann writes, Snow White is not an original Disney character. 

Jacob Grimm (January 4, 1785 – September 20, 1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (February 24, 1786 – December 16, 1859) were German researchers/editors who collected the European folk tales that were being passed along in the verbal tradition and published anthologies in what is now known as Grimm's Fairy Tales. Their first anthology, published in 1812, contained, among other things, Snow White.  The German fairy tale (certainly much darker than the Disney version ... as were they all) had the seven dwarfs, the magic mirror, the wake-from-long-slumber, etc. In fact, a Broadway play in 1912 featured Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. What Disney did in 1937 (released in 1938) was dress Snow White, lighten up the story, and name the dwarfs.

So, Mr. Azmann argues, Snow White not only should not have the traditional character protections of copyright and unfair competition (let alone a trademark), it should be free for ALL to use as it entered the public domain a long time ago.