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How To Avoid Problems With Disney – Lets Talk Copyright!

As an Etsy or ecommerce seller it is hard to know what storybook characters are copyrighted and which are not. Added to that is the fear that Disney will come after you hard if you are using one of “their” characters in your designs, titles or tags.

How To Avoid Problems With Disney For Etsy Sellers

This post is an overview of Disney Copyright, combined with a list of storybook characters you can use in your designs “legally” because their copyright has expired and they are in the public domain.

The reason I wrote this post is because I talked to so many online sellers who were focusing on short term gains while exploiting the legal rights of the copyright owner for popular Disney characters.

US Copyright Law protects the the copyright owner and I am always surprised when sellers are willing to “steal” Disney's copyrighted work, while at the same being upset if someone copies their products!

Disclaimer… I am a marketing person, not a lawyer. Please do not take my word for this, if you have a question, research it yourself or retain legal counsel. 

Updated February 8th 2024

Vintage Mickey is in the public domain! Whoo whoo! (only the Steamboat Willy version for now)

Mickey Mouse, arguably one of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time and Walt Disney’s most endearing creation, is headed for the public domain. In truth, the earliest version of Mickey Mouse, which first appeared in the 1928 landmark animated short Steamboat Willie, will be entering the public domain when the film’s copyright expires in 2024.

Johns Hopkins

Vintage Pooh is in the public domain! Whoo whoo!

On Jan. 1, 2022, numerous works entered the public domain, including A.A. Milne’s original Winnie-the Pooh stories. Although Disney’s version of Pooh is protected by copyright, the company no longer has an exclusive right to Milne’s work.

According to the website, copyright lasts for the life of the creator PLUS 70 years, which is a LONG TIME! Super, that makes everything really easy right? Maybe not so much!

What about Cinderella and Aurora who were made into Disney movies? Does Disney have “dibs” on those characters? What about the Beauty and the Beast franchise, that they just rebooted with a full blown movie… is that their property?

Note: Baby Yoda is a protected Star Wars property… learn more on the Star How To Avoid Problems With Marvel Comics and Star Wars For Etsy Sellers page!

Common Sense Prevails

Most times you can use common sense to figure out if something is over the line “copyright” wise. Here are some live shot of current Etsy products... can you spot the ones that might have a problem passing the copyright sniff test?

Beauty and the Beast Copyright Questions

The party package on the left from Popobell is a great example of using the Beauty and the Beast theme without using any of the Disney images. It has castles and vines and Belle, but nothing that steps over the line to annoy Disney.

The one on the right has a picture from the movie… sigh. Now, they may have gotten permission from Disney to use that picture, but I doubt it. Instead they are “stealing” the popularity of a specific necklace from a specific scene of a movie.

Here are a couple of examples from Cinderella… which do you think is okay?

Cinderella Copyright Questions

The one on the left is from the PixelPerfectionParty store. It screams Cinderella and is a great example (I found that the party gals were super creative about making sure they stayed on the right side of the line!)

The shop on the right is using the EXACT images from the Disney movies. Now I KNOW they will say that they are using that fabric, but the license is with the company that manufactures the fabric, not with someone who makes a product from the fabric. Buying a product with proprietary images doesn't give you the right to use them for something for commercial intent.

Before you get all sanctimonious about “First Sale Doctrine” (meaning that buying the fabric is the “first sale” and you SHOULD have the right to use it to make products to sell), Etsy will not take the time to research all of this and you probably don't have deep enough pockets to fight Disney if they contact Etsy about your shop. 

How Is Disney Changing To Fight The Stealing Problem?

In doing my research for this article I found a great post on Quora about how Disney is now handling this copyright infringement problem. For example, they rebooted Rapunzel as “Tangled” and did The Snow Queen story as “Frozen”.

That is GREAT for us as it then makes the line super clear! But in the meantime, here are some of the public domain classics that Disney has made over the years (I focused on popular ones that we would use in making products):

  • Aladdin (written in 1706 – source)
  • Alice In Wonderland (written in 1865 by Lewis Carroll – source)
  • Bambi (written in 1923 – source)
  • Beauty and The Beast (written in 1740 – source)
  • Christmas Carol (written in 1843 by Charles Dickens – source)
  • Cinderella (written in 1697 – source)
  • Jungle Book (written in 1894 by Rudyard Kipling – source)
  • Little Mermaid (written in 1837 by Hans Christian Anderson – source)
  • Peter Pan (written in 1902 by J.M. Barrie – source)
  • Pinocchio (written in 1883 – source)
  • Robin Hood (written in 1377 folk tale – source)
  • Sleeping Beauty (written in 1697, note Disney named her Aurora, her original name was Briar Rose or Talia and her daughter was Aurora – source)
  • Snow White (written in 1812 by Grimm Brothers – source)
  • Winnie The Pooh (written in 1926 – source)
  • Wizard of Oz (written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum – this one is super convoluted source)

You are able to use ANY of these names and themes. You just cannot use any of the specific imagery or new parts that Disney specifically added.

Additional Properties Owned By Walt Disney Company

How To Find Images To Use

As you start making products that are based on these stories you might want to get a bit of inspiration (that won't get you in trouble).

To find images for this you can do a search for “public domain images of alice in wonderland” or any other story.

This is the search results:

Public Domain Images Alice In Wonderland

I love that some of them are in color so we can see things like this…

Alice In Wonderland Disney and Public Domain

Disney actually based their Alice on the classic version so you would probably be okay making products based on the “classic” version that would match “new” Disney Alice colors.

When Mickey Mouse Enters The Public Domain

In 2024 Mickey Mouse will leave Copyright protection… YAY! But only the original Mickey versions… BOO!

It seems like some sellers are super excited that Disney will be losing some of their copyright protections in the coming years. This is true, but only for the older versions of Mickey, not the current day, colorful character we all know and love. 

As changes in his look occurred over the years, these will roll out over the the years. 

Losing their copyright doesn't mean that Disney will allow a free for all using current Disney characters that will not actually be in the public domain legally. 

A fun note about trademark registrations though! I immediately thought to myself, well trademark will protect them, but that is not totally true. This has been brought all the way to the Supreme Court in Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. 

Twentieth Century Fox, which had owned the television rights before they expired, sued Dastar arguing that Dastar had violated trademark law by passing off Fox's work as its own. But the Supreme Court rejected that argument, noting that allowing the use of trademark law to restrict the republication of creative works would create “a species of mutant copyright law” that limits copying of public domain works.

Source Mickey Mouse will be public domain soon—here’s what that means

Just Because It Makes It Harder Doesn't Make It Wrong

It is funny, I hear Etsy sellers screaming all the time about how China sellers are stealing their designs while at the same time they have Disney pictures and inspiration on their own products.

Copyright (intellectual property rights protection) protects you just like it protects Disney. Copyright starts at the time of your first publication of an image, piece of writing or work of art. You don't have to do anything to get this protection it is automatic. Now, defending that beyond just reporting it Etsy may cost more than you want spend, but it is available to you.

If someone steals your original designs or concepts you can report it to your sales platform. They will then make a determination about whether they will support you.

Now that we have covered your rights, let's talk about Disney's rights. I KNOW it is harder to sell non-Disney products because they are so popular. But your job is to figure out how to use the public domain information to make your products appealing to buyers.

Inspired by… this one drives me nuts when I see it as an excuse. Sellers will say, “but I am just saying that it is inspired by a Disney movie. That is violating the Copyright act and is going to get you in trouble. Another “sneaky” way that sellers try is “similar”… also not okay!

But everyone is doing it… just because all your friends jump off a bridge, oh wait that is my talk with my kids, but kind of appropriate here. It is easy to find other people who are breaking the law every day in many ways. It is not worth putting your business in jeopardy by trying to take the easy way out.

Disney Fan Art Policy… let's talk a wee bit about fan art! Disney fan art is fine to do, of course. What is not fine is SELLING your fan art. I know, you are just trying to add to their company, but they are FIERCE about protecting their copyright and they want to control the products that are put out for their business.

Derivative Work… according to the Copyright office, “To be copyrightable, a derivative work must incorporate some or all of a preexisting “work” and add new original copyrightable authorship to that work. The derivative work right is often referred to as the adaptation right.

We saw the problems with this when the Supreme Court ruled agains Andy Worhal saying that his derivative work was not different enough from the original artwork to make a new copyright holder.

We are not going to talk about Fair Use and whether a work is derivative of Disney's or not, the problem for me comes when you are trying to use keywords and descriptions that might flag Etsy's system and get your listing a copyright strike.

Get Creative With Your Artistic Work

Whether you are are selling custom fine gallery artwork or low brow tshirts with funny sayings, you need to get creative with your product development. Do a wee bit of research and find out if something is in the public domain BEFORE you get far into the process.

Figure out if some of what is “Disney-esque” is actually based on public domain that you can use without fear.

Find those original characters from the fairy tales and make unique and new works based on them!

As long as your original work is based off a storybook character, selling a product that is in line with that should not have a negative impact on your store!

Last but not least be flexible!

We haven't even talked about all the crazy trademark rights (Disney ONLY has the trademark on “Princess Aurora” for production and distribution of motion picture Disney films; production of television programs; production of sound and video recordings.)

I KNOW people and companies are trademarking so many phrases and words that knowing what is fair game is a moving target.

Just do your best to make sure you are staying in compliance, take down anything right away that violates trademark or copyright and keep producing new great products!

Etsy SEO Update… ack! Directly from Etsy… Getting great reviews, having complete shop policies, and adding an About section positively impact your search ranking, while recent cases opened against your shop and intellectual property infringement issues can hurt your search ranking. Not only can Disney request that your product be taken down, but there could be lingering SEO effects even after it is down!

Even More Info!

I am more of an expert on licensing for photos and written work than Copyright and Trademarks, so here are some great resources I found while writing this!

Awesome comment from a reader!

One note. Disney did not name the Sleeping Beauty Princess Aurora. That character was named Aurora when Tchaikovsky’s ballet premiered in St. Petersburg in 1890. (And Disney used Tchaikovsky’s music for the film). I’m not sure if she was called that in any other tellings of the story before then, but 1890 should be thoroughly public domain, as well. Many balletomanes and dance companies were quite annoyed when Disney registered “Princess Aurora” … Larissa King from Entrechat Dance

Avoiding Problems With Disney Wrapup

Additional Resources For Etsy Sellers

How To Avoid Violating Disney Copyright Laws