Disney pulls 'Dia de los Muertos' trademark bid

6:37 AM, May 8, 2013   |    comments
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Disney has experience reviving spirits: Pinocchio was a puppet that came to life, and Snow White was awakened by a kiss. But news Tuesday that Disney wanted to trademark the phrase "Dia de los Muertos," a Latino holiday celebrating the spirits of the dead, brought a backlash that might have set Mickey Mouse's ears burning.

"How can you trademark a cultural tradition?" asked Kathy Cano-Murillo, known as the Crafty Chica on her Twitter feed. Cano-Murillo, a Phoenix artist and author, incorporates Day of the Dead designs in her art.

Lalo Alcaraz, creator of the comic strip "La Cucaracha," tweeted: "Disney to trademark Dia de Los Muertos, also your dead relatives."

The trademark story was first reported Tuesday by Fronteras, a coalition of public radio stations based in Phoenix.

By the end of the day, Disney had issued a statement saying that it had withdrawn the application and that the company's intent was only to protect the name and merchandising rights for a coming Dia de Los Muertos movie from Disney-Pixar.

Late Tuesday, Fronteras said Disney officials had issued a statement saying, "As we have previously announced, Disney-Pixar is developing an animated feature inspired by the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos. Disney's trademark filing was intended to protect any potential title for our film and related activities. It has since been determined that the title of the film will change, and therefore we are withdrawing our trademark filing."

If Disney Enterprises, the merchandising arm of the company, had succeeded with its trademark application, it would not necessarily have owned the name, trademark attorneys say. But they could have had exclusive rights to sell potato chips, snow globes or perfumes branded with that phrase.

"It doesn't mean they can stop anyone else from putting on a Dia de los Muertos celebration or anything on those lines," said Michael Campillo, partner at Venable Campillo Logan and Meaney.

"They could stop someone from putting out a movie with the same name, or other merchandise."

Still, Campillo said it didn't make a lot of sense to try to trademark a phrase that was in such common use.

"It seems odd that they would go out of their way to upset the consuming public," he said, "a large part of which they're trying to court for business."

In 2011, Disney filed to trademark the name "Seal Team 6," but withdrew the application out of deference to the military. The move came after public criticism.

Disney filed 10 applications on May 1, which Campillo said was typical if the company was trying to trademark a movie and associated merchandising.

The release date for the movie is not set. The animation studio Pixar, creators of "Toy Story" and "Up," announced the project during a movie-theater owners convention in Las Vegas in 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Dia de los Muertos is a tradtional Mexican celebration of All Souls Day, derived from a mixture of Catholic and indigenous beliefs and practices. Families decorate relatives' grave sites and hold celebrations there. Some homes feature elaborate shrines.

"It is when I honor my ancestors," said Carmen Guerrero, a musician and artist in Mesa, Ariz. "We get back to looking at our ancestors and our past and where we are now."

Artwork depicting skeletons and skulls, typical of Dia de los Muertos celebrations, has become increasingly popular throughout the Southwest, Guerrero said.

"People understand it, they embrace it as a beautiful tradition," she said. "It is our gift to this culture, the fact we remember our ancestors."

In its trademark applications, Disney requested exclusive domain for goods including "fruit-based snack foods," "Christmas-tree ornaments and decorations," "decorative magnets," "non-medicated toiletries" and "frozen meals consisting primarily of pasta or rice."

It also asked to have a trademark on "education and entertainment services."

But, in that last category, the government already registered a trademark that could have conflicted with Disney's request.

A trademark for "day of the dead" was registered to a Houston company called the Valence Group in November 2007. That was granted "for entertainment services," according to the records on the website of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The phrase was used by a bar in Houston called the Mink that held a Day of the Dead musical celebration. That bar has since closed.

But that trademark put a hitch in the plans of a death-metal band from Los Angeles that wanted, in 2009, to register its name: Dia De Los Muertos.

Its application was questioned by federal officials, who were concerned they couldn't grant a trademark for "Dia de dos Muertos" when they had already given out one for "Day of the Dead," said Michael Kuznetsky, a Los Angeles attorney who handled the issue for the band.

"(It) was saying to the band, 'We think there's a likelihood of confusion,' " Kuznetsky said.

The band did not respond to the questioning and abandoned the application for the trademark in 2010. The band still performs under the name Dia De Los Muertos and celebrates its Latino heritage with a growling thrash version of the mariachi classic, "El Rey."

Zarco Guerrero, Carmen's husband and an artist who has organized several Dia de los Muertos celebrations for galleries and cities, said that Disney's move is just an indicator of how much the Mexican celebration has moved into mainstream U.S. culture.

He looks at the coming release of the movie with a mixture of anticipation and worry.

"I'm going to see it, and I'm hoping that I love it like I do every other Pixar movie," he said. "But it's going to have huge ramifications culturally. It's going to change the face of Dia de los Muertos."

By Richard Ruelas, The Arizona Republic

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