The Disney fandom is huge, creative, and influential – not only onto other fans, but also on Disney itself.
A recent piece on Racked by “Why Notoriously Litigious Disney Is Letting Fan Stores Thrive” comments on the way Disney’s policies have shifted from strict IP protection to a more relaxed stance on allowing fans to produce their own Disney themed merchandise. While the company hasn’t completely put all its characters, stories, and names into the public domain, it has been notably more lenient with smaller shops that sell Disney-inspired merchandise. Many of these can be found on Etsy, Zazzle, and Instagram, selling products like custom Mickey ears, shirts with memorable quotes, and other Disney memorabilia not sold in official stores.titled
George-Parkin points out that in an age that’s incredibly connected by the internet, Disney actually benefits from letting individual shops use their characters, names, and images. Newer Disney projects like Oh My Disney and “Club Mickey Mouse” make it clear that the company takes cue from popular culture, meaning that Disney seems to be gaining inspiration from these smaller stores.
“By putting out content quickly, we can see and learn and watch and adapt,” says Andrew Sugerman, evp of content and media with Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media, in an Adweek article. His comment notes the way that Disney views the fandom as a legitimate source of inspiration and keeps an eye on how content is received.
In addition, while Disney doesn’t make any money off of these products, they do act as a form of branding that can affect fans’ desires to still spend their money on truly Disney things such as merchandise, movies, and park tickets.
So while Disney may not see the $25 a fan spends on a T-shirt from an independent seller, that same fan may be inspired to wear it to Disney World (admission price: $181.05 during regular season), stay at a Disney hotel (average nightly rate: $388), and buy food and official merch in the parks while they’re there.
It’s important to note that Disney still keeps a tight hold on its IP, especially Mickey Mouse, whose copyright has been renewed and re-renewed such that Disney owns the character until 2023. Priceonomics notes that Disney is likely to fight for this and other copyrights indefinitely, even for films and characters based on those in the public domain.
Yet the internet has obviously changed the way media companies view their audience. Fans are no longer passive consumers – because the internet gives everyone the power to create, well, and influence others on their own, Disney appears to be willing to (at least partially) embrace this change for their own advantage.
While there is still an obvious tension between Disney and its fandom, there also seems to be a mutual desire to learn from each other.
“They’ve got their ears, their minds, and their hearts open,” said Sararose Krenger, of the blog Dressed In Disney, to Racked. “They obviously want to build the best business that they can, but they realize that consumer experiences and feedback are key in doing that.”
In a similar vein, Sugerman maintained that, “As the audience evolves, we’re making sure to lean in and being relevant to where they are.”
For now Disney and the fandom are treading the fine line between what’s legal and what’s not in a world that’s still figuring out how ownership works in our modern age. Only time will tell how laws will change and affect this relationship, but for now, it’s heartening to know that both parties are aiming for peace and progress.