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.

Tom Maguire

Thought Titles weren't copyrightable or trademarkable.


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.


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).


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.


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

Pam Orndorff in Virginia

Please don't let this happen! The SEALS are Alpha Males who do work that others cannot. They are a secret Government society of patriotic, strong, brave men who need their work to be kept in SECRET. This is not a game. We have already risked their lives with all of the news, sensationalism and gossip surrounding their work since they deleted Bin Laden. These men work to keep us safe. We need to do the same for them! Disney: don't do this or you will have a lot of opposition and negative feedback from this.

Does anyone know who to contact to fight this?? Thank you SEALS Team 6 for ALL that you do. But....we don't need to know what that is. They just need our THANKS !!!


Someone sure does love their strong Alpha Males, secretly, of course.


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.


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.

John B

Under patent law, you can't patent something that is already in the public domain or in prior use.

I am surprised that Trademark Law allows a party to take a commonly used name or phrase and steal it for its own use or benefit.

I think if Disney makes any $ from this, all members of Seal Team Six, and their relatives, have a claim against Disney--if not legally, certainly morally.


Too bad the unit hasn't been called 'Seal Team 6' since the Cold War. Disney might get around the public use limitation because that name -- unlike 'US Marines' -- hasn't described an actual unit for over 20 years.
No more Brooklyn Trolley-Dodgers, Washington Senators, or Seal Team 6.
It's been DevGru for a while, but may have changed.


The biggest problem with this theory that Disney is increasing search costs basically by registering a mark in bad faith is that trademark is not just first come first served - you must actually use the mark in commerce in order to keep it. Disney can only keep the mark, and therefore prevent others from using it, if it actually uses it in commerce within 6 months of allowance or within 1 year if granted an extension. Unless Disney makes a movie about SEAL Team 6, they'll lose their ability to prevent others from making movies with that name.


The 'Seal Team 6' of the US Navy has not existed for quiet a while...

The Navy SEALs were part of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, previously called "Team 6".[16] based in Dam Neck, VA


Mr. J

Disney could not copyright or trademark the phrase "Seal Team Six"...period. Disney could, however, trademark the name of a movie, a book, or any specific work they have in mind. But if they want to make a movie entitled "Seal Team Six", then they have the right to protect it...for a while.

The terms of the Disney "trademark" are published at USPTO.org.


It seems very likely to what is done with domains for websites. Someone buys it only in order to sell it later to someone who needs it more and is ready to pay for it.

Jon Dough

I wonder how this book might be affected by all this...

The Rock

Nice one Disney! Very good businessman...hahaha but i hope the navy seals will not sell the trademark to disney...to maintain their legacy and what i suggests is that they just ask for royalties and sum1 should still be around during a movie shoot because i hav watched one movie about seal team 8 and it was a disaster movie was not realistic and the actors were worst because i think nobody supervises the movie from the real seal teams because SEALS is a legend and the legacy must be preserved....

Matt Brooks

Someone should make a movie about this called "$seal Team $ix."

Matt Brooks

"$eal Team $ix", that is.


What few people realize is that one cannot, in fact, trademark the title to a single movie or book (although it's possible to trademark a series of works; think "Harry Potter".)

Disney can't prevent you from creating and marketing your own "Seal Team Six" movie (or book) unless they create a whole franchise around the title. That's something they're pretty good at doing, of course, but unless they do it, the TM application is worthless.