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Navy Defeats Disney in Copyright Flap; Other Regulators Could Learn Something

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The Navy SEALS are 2-0 in the last 30 days. While killing Osama bin Laden was by far the tougher fight, defeating Disney (DIS) over a copyright claim is no small feat, either. Here's hoping this will spur other parts of the government to fight back against corporations.

Two days after bin Laden's death, Disney applied for a trademark on "SEAL Team 6" for a wide range of uses, from hand-held videogames to snow globes. The public reaction was nearly unanimous. First, people were appalled at a private company profiting from the men who'd risked their lives on the bin Laden mission. Then came the fear Disney would launch a kid's show where six cartoon seals hunted down Ostrich bin Laden. (Given the studio's World War II propaganda work, that was hardly a stretch.)

Unlike the SEC, EPA, MSHA (mine safety), BOEMRE (off-shore oil drilling) and countless other federal agencies, the Navy decided to fight back. It filed its own trademark application and came out with legal guns blazing. Before long Disney backed down, claiming the whole thing was a misunderstanding. The application was only filed because ABC TV execs "had preliminary discussions about creating a TV series about a Navy unit." Even if true, that doesn't really explain the snow globes thing.

It must not have been easy for Disney to surrender on this one. It's been known to go nuclear over copyright issues, as when it got Congress to pass what is officially known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act of 1998, this law extended copyright on Steam Boat Willie and other early Disney titles by 20 years for no reason that served the public good whatsoever. The company must have figured, almost certainly correctly, that by 2023 it will be able to buy another Congress.

The studio clearly underestimated its opponent. The Department of Defense has extensive experience in copyright warfare. It already had a longstanding trademark on plain old "SEALs," which it has licensed for videogames, among other products.

Maybe the Navy will loan out a few SEALs to other agencies. It could inspire those departments to grow a backbone and give the sailors some well-earned rest.

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