Almost a year ago, I wrote about my modest success selling t-shirt designs on that artfully depict the Disney World monorail announcer’s characteristic Por favor manténgase alejado de las puertas.

In that piece, I also drew attention to the ways products like this exert fandom by commercially exploiting holes in a property owner’s own productization of itself.

What I didn’t report was this: some months after I originally wrote about my designs, the pink “Fantasyland” version of these shirts got pulled from Zazzle due to a copyright infringement claim from Disney. What’s most fascinating about this action is not that it took place, but that the target of the complaint was limited to that one design. My “Epcot” design continued to sell without incident. After all, both designs depict the monorail and the phrase, so if there’s a problem with one, why isn’t there a problem with the other?

At the time, I was simply too busy to put much time into determining why this was the case. In recent weeks, I finally got around to contacting Zazzle’s content management group, who were most helpful and prompt in answering my request for additional information. Here’s what they said:

The Disney castle concept is the protected intellectual property of Disney Inc. and may not be used on Zazzle products without permission, regardless of who the original artist or photographer may be. We are sorry for any inconveniences this may have caused.

Fascinating, isn’t it? It’s not the monorail or the text that Disney perceived as infringement, but the castle! Could that really be true? I decided to test it out by making a new version of the shirt, exactly the same in every way, but with the castle removed. I was able to order it without incident, and now you can too.

You might wonder along with me if Disney really believes that it owns the concept of the castle, especially since Cinderella Castle was modeled after the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. I suspect it’s the combination of elements that make them snarl. I’d guess that a shirt with no mention or implication of Disney that depicted an abstract castle of the same design would never set off any filters or flags. Perhaps I’ll try that too, just for kicks.

published October 12, 2009


  1. Mark J. Nelson

    This trademark for a “castle device” appears to be the only Disney trademark on a castle, fwiw. Your castle isn’t really the same, though I suppose in context there might be an argument that it’s a version of it (as opposed to an independently conceived silhouette of the castle).

  2. Mark J. Nelson

    Hmm, I guess USPTO links expire. Can’t find a way to get a permanent link, but searching for serial #77154442 ought to bring it up.

  3. Ian Bogost

    It’s fascinating that the USPTO doesn’t allow direct links to trademarks, although that’s not the subject at issue here. Interestingly, the “goods & services” domain patent doesn’t name apparel specifically, although it does name “amusement park and theme park services.” It also seems to require a “semi-circle” which I clearly don’t have. In any case, thanks for digging up the TM record.

  4. Melanie

    I’m not surprised by this, Ian. I worked for a Disney-owned magazine briefly in the mid-90s and we would get lots of recipes and craft ideas from folks around the country–very basic ideas for things like apple pie or how to make snowflakes out of construction paper. Every single one of the ideas sent to the editors would go through a legal process in the home offices in NYC that date-stamped them to establish elaborate legal ownership rights before our editing staff was even allowed to see them. Disney’s legal department functions from a position that it must establish ownership of everything that passes through its offices, no matter how simple or “un-trademarkable” those ideas may be. I found this truly disturbing, in a Haraway Onco-Mouse(TM) sort of way.

  5. Ian Bogost

    Melanie, I’ve experienced the same thing, and I rather expected *all* my designs to get pulled initially. I was surprised when only some of them did!

    I remember a circa 1995 Disney style guide I had at a job in LA. I’m pretty sure I remember it verbatim: “‘Disney World’ should never be referred to as an entity in the corporeal world. It should only be called ‘The Walt Disney World Resort.'”

  6. Ian Bogost

    Please Stand Clear of the Closing Rights

    How Disney and Zazzle conspire against me (and you)

  7. Old Guy

    Disney is very anal about this time of thing for good reason. Think Xerox and Kleenex. Those marks were lost to the companies because they were not vigilant. Kleenex tried later to regain it by using Kleenex brand tissues but too late