Apple and Disney: A Copyright Conundrum

Last week I was at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey.  A law student struck up a conversation with me, and once he discovered that I was there to give a guest lecture in Prof. Michael Carrier‘s intellectual property class, he showed me something that had us both scratching our heads.  It was a decal of Snow White, affixed to the lid of his MacBook laptop so that she was holding the Apple logo in her hands.  It turns out that more than one designer has thought of this idea; here’s one example

Let’s make the (fairly safe) assumption that the makers of these decals were not licensed by The Walt Disney Company.  So the question is: would this be a fair use of the iconic cartoon image, or is the decal maker liable?

The design works as ironic commentary on a couple of levels.  Those of you who have seen the classic 1937 Disney animated feature, or at least know the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, will understand she held an apple in the story, which was poisoned.  (Snow White’s pose in the decal is the same as when she held the poisoned apple in the movie.)  On another level, Snow White holding the Apple logo is a commentary on Apple’s relationship with Disney, given that Steve Jobs was on the Disney board and was the largest investor in the company.

Is the decal a “transformative” use of Disney’s intellectual property?  (If a use of copyrighted material is transformative, it’s likely to be fair use.)

From what I can tell, the manufacturer of the decals is using Disney’s IP without permission by simply making copies of Snow White.  There is nothing “transformative” about that by itself; it’s not part of a mashup, collage, remix, etc.  The whole of Snow White was used, not a snippet or sample.  The decal was sold commercially, though it probably doesn’t make people less likely to buy Snow White items from the Disney Store.  It may or may not be an example of “appropriation art.”

The “transformative” use of the decal is made by the person who buys it and affixes it to his MacBook.  One could argue that the decal was made specifically with that use in mind; one could say that the decal maker was “inducing” transformative uses of Snow White.

OK, copyright geeks, time to weigh in.  Here’s a poll.  Feel free to elaborate in the comments.

2 comments

  1. Clearly this particular manifestation of the “Snow White” MacBook sticker meme is infringement; as Bill says, the creators of this sticker in no way transformed the image from the movie. Other manifestations make the effort to transform her in some way, including using single colors (black or white), adding a mask, adding glasses, and even going “zombie!”

  2. I think it’s copyright infringement. The decal make somehow seems to be aware of how it is going to end up being used by the consumer.

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