When you learned of the death of Osama bin Laden, what was your first thought? Actually, scratch that. What was your tenth thought? What was going through your mind the next day as the story unfolded and the details (many erroneous – tsk, tsk) spilled forth? Did you weigh out whether or not you felt happy about the death of another person? Did you marvel at the bravery and strategic mettle of our armed forces? Did you shake your head in disbelief as you tried to put yourself in President Obama’s shoes with such a huge decision on the line? Or did you see dollar signs?
I’m not a sociologist or a social worker or a shrink, but I’d wager that those first three responses were totally normal – universal even – given the magnitude of what had happened. On the other hand, if you’d told me that within a handful of days you’d filed trademark applications for the name “SEAL Team 6″ (the illustrious group that executed the bin Laden raid), I might have, ever-so-politely of course, suggested that you were a sociopath. And yet, that is exactly what the Walt Disney Company did.
Yes, my friends, in the wake of this national moment most of us grappled with a buffet of conflicting emotions. We sorted out fact from rumor. We sat in disbelief that this man, who had so long seemed a phantom, had actually been found in the flesh. But while the rest of our heads were still spinning, Mickey and Donald and the gang trotted their way straight to the patent office and made sure they’d get a sweet payday out of the deal.
I’m no fool. I know that Disney is not all princesses and fairy dust and Mouseketeers. It is a behemoth, and an immensely profitable behemoth at that. The Magic Kingdom may peddle a dream of childhood innocence, but the magic word here is “peddle.” As in “sell.” As in “they’re not giving anything away for free.” Not Disneyland admission. Not movie tickets. Not stuffed, flammable dolls of Minnie or Simba or Ariel. So it’s not like I’m living in a dream world believing that Disney exists merely for the good of humanity. But this? I found this move a little unseemly even for a mega-corporation.*
Beyond my moral aversion to this news, I question both the legal viability of such a trademark as well as the business wisdom. From the legal perspective, how can a corporation trademark the name of a U.S. military organization? Surely names like Army, Navy, and Marines are owned by the federal government, that is if they do not supercede ownership altogether. Does Disney really have a case here? I asked a lawyer friend this very question and his answer was: absolutely. He surmised that something as big as “U.S. Navy” is probably already trademarked, but such a small and heretofore not-so-famous military squad may well not be. And there’s nothing to stop Disney from laying claim to it if they get there first.
As for the business wisdom, I wonder what Disney’s intentions for this trademark are. Will they merely ring up royalties any time a news outlet mentions the name of the SEAL team in question? Or will they plaster it on lunchboxes and action figure sets available in every Target and Toys R Us nation wide? If it is the former, wouldn’t royalty-paying types just take care not to use the name “SEAL Team 6″ (which, if we’re being persnickety, and clearly I am, was technically dissolved in 1987 and renamed United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group)? And if it’s the latter, is there no concern that today’s lunchbox-toting set has zero recollection of September 11th, and further that their parents may be reluctant to purchase such toys for fear of thrusting the concept of terrorism at their kids too early? Perhaps the opportunity cost of filing an application was too low to worry about such pitfalls. Certainly products aimed at an older demographic (movies, video games, etc.) are more likely commercialization candidates. But I still question whether the mere presence of a viable target market validates the creation of a product that, when you get right down to it, ultimately profits from acts of terrorism and revenge.
Much like the celebration itself that ensued after bin Laden’s death, this situation leaves me feeling icky. So today I will force myself to be thankful for free speech and a free economy. Because in moments like these it’s their dark side that shines the brightest.
*That is not to say that I think Disney is a fundamentally a bad company, or that I wouldn’t patronize them. On the contrary, we, along with GAP’s entire family, are already planning a trip to Disney World for next year and I am quite looking forward to it. Nevertheless, I find this particular decision unfortunate and unsavory.