Disney’s Stealthy “Seal Team Six” Trademark Move

On May 1, Seal Team Six killed Osama bin Laden. On May 3, the Walt Disney Company—usually known for animated films about princesses and singing bears–applied for a trademark on the term “Seal Team Six.”

The standard economic rationale for trademark law is that trademarks reduce search costs for consumers. Think about a trip to buy new running sneakers. There may be dozens of pairs on the shelves of your local store. And many hundreds more online. How do you choose?

This is where trademarks come in. Say you’ve had a few pairs of Adidas, and you’ve had a good experience with them. So when you’re out buying a new pair, you look for the famous Adidas three-stripe logo. The logo allows you to efficiently apply your experience to choose a new pair of shoes. Your search costs are greatly reduced when you can reliably infer product attributes from a trademark.

Disney ambushed the competition (LiquidLibrary)

So is Disney trademarking “Seal Team Six” to reduce search costs for tweens seeking animated films about the killing of Osama bin Laden? No one associates Disney, home of Bambi, with crack hunter-killer teams dispatching terrorists with bullets to the chest and head. And in fact, Disney’s private goals have nothing to do with reducing consumers’ search costs. So why is Disney seeking the trademark?

Because Disney wants to increase search costs. How’s that? We all know the Navy SEALs are big news right now, and will be for some time. Competing studios will want to make films about Seal Team Six. Disney wants to ensure that they are the only ones able to make a movie about Seal Team Six with that name in the title. If someone else makes a Seal Team Six movie, they had better find another title, or face Disney’s lawyers in court. (It’s possible that a rival studio might be able to claim that their use of “Seal Team Six” is fair use, and therefore cannot be trademark infringement, but the fair use doctrine in trademark law is not well developed, and an outcome is difficult to predict. Any would-be competitor in the market for movies about the Navy Seals will face some risk, especially against a big player like Disney.)

The problem is that for people interested in movies about Seal Team Six, it’s helpful to have that term in the title – it reduces their costs of figuring out which movie to see. Without the trademark, consumers are forced to spend more time and effort searching out awesome movies about Navy Seal teams.

This episode thus offers an important lesson: trademarks are justified as a way to reduce search costs, but they can also be used to raise them – and that is advantageous to firms which are, as Disney is here, moving to box out competitors. That’s good for Disney, but bad for consumers and competition.

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  1. Tom Maguire says:

    Thought Titles weren’t copyrightable or trademarkable.

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  2. Hoxsey71 says:

    Isn’t it most likely the case that Disney is just hoping to force other studios into buying the rights to the trademark for more money than it cost Disney in fees, etc to secure it in the first place? Much the same way some people go around buying domain names, hoping to anticipate which ones companies will covet and eventually shell out big bucks for. Aside from the legal hassles this appears to be a relatively easy way to make a profit without having to create anything at all.

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  3. Clancy says:

    Seems like bald-faced trolling to me. They may have no intention of making their own Seal Team Six movie, but they want to extort some rent from anyone who does. They are probably not on solid legal ground with a move like this, but other companies might give in anyway because “their lawyers can beat up our lawyers.”

    Luckily, I can still move forward with my film “SEAL Team Seven” (TM).

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  4. Dusan says:

    I disagree. You have to remember that Disney owns Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures and Miramax, all of wich could make such a movie without hurting Disney’s family-friendy fame.

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  5. Mike says:

    Two thoughts:

    1. you might be right about the origin of trademark being in saving consumers search time, being a mark of a particular manufacturer, but trademarks haven’t been about consumer protection for a long, long time.

    2. this is done all the time, but usually an outfit like Disney (is it impolite to call them trademark squatters?) has the common sense to use a shell corporation or law firm as the first trademark owner to obscure who’s grabbing the rights to the newly famous phrase

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  6. Pam Orndorff in Virginia says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  7. Hoxsey71 says:

    Pam, perhaps you missed the extensive news coverage, complete with computer generated re-enactments, where the details of the mission have already been revealed. Unless they plan to make a movie revealing the specifics of a future mission I can’t see how this would present any danger to the men of SEAL Team Six.

    Either way our comments have digressed enough to belong under an article titled “should a movie be made about STS,” and not the one found above, and should perhaps agree to disagree.

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  8. James says:

    I confess to being fairly puzzled by this. How can Disney (or anyone) trademark the name of a unit of the US military? It’s like calling your new company the US Marines or 101st Airborne.

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