Disney's Battle to Protect Mickey and Friends ; Asia a Hot Spot for Piracy and Counterfeiting of Company's Brands

Article excerpt

The piracy and counterfeiting of Disney's brands and characters are a major issue in Asia, where the company is sometimes left with no practical legal avenues to pursue thieves.

When some of Walt Disney's most celebrated characters showed up on North Korean television the other day, one could almost hear Uncle Walt screaming down oaths from the afterlife.

Mickey, Minnie and Tigger were shown dancing and singing for the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, and some of his generals. In a terse statement, the Disney company said the performance had been unlicensed and unauthorized.

But what can Disney do, really? Haul Mr. Kim into copyright court? North Korea, an isolated, Stalinist state, is one of the few countries that do not belong to the World Trade Organization.

There was some irony in the Pyongyang performance: Mr. Disney, the legendary American animator, who died in 1966, was one of Hollywood's most active, phobic and vehement anti-Communists back in the day.

He appeared as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he helped to found a political action group, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The group cast itself as being "in sharp revolt against a rising tide of communism, fascism, and kindred beliefs," saying that the movie business was "made of, and dominated by, Communists, radicals, and crackpots."

Even if the Disney company has no practical legal avenues to pursue, it has every right to defend its brand and its products -- its intellectual property. As my colleague Brooks Barnes reports on the Media Decoder blog, Disney has been aggressive in protecting its films, cartoons and characters around the world.

Piracy and counterfeiting in China -- North Korea's principal ally and benefactor -- is a major trade issue. Illegally copied films, TV shows, books and music are easily bought in China, and all over Asia, for that matter. A DVD holding a dozen Hollywood movies costs $2 in Myanmar, for example. High-definition copies of first- run U.S. films go for $2.50 each in Bangkok. Music DVDs in Cambodia: 50 cents.

All these products and brands are the stock in trade of the companies that produce them. They are Caterpillar's backhoes, Apple's iPhones -- and Disney's mice and ducks and dwarves.

So when people dressed in Mickey and Minnie Mouse costumes were panhandling outside the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing last summer, Disney had them rousted. (A Disney spokesman, according to a story in China Daily, called it "a very big deal. …