Why is Disney letting its IP be used for political purposes?

By Susan E. McGregor

When photojournalist Andrea Bruce arrived at the “Trump Parade” in New Bern, North Carolina on June 13th, she didn’t quite know what to expect. A trip down the rabbit hole of related Facebook pages had led her to information about the event, where she encountered Trump supporters sailing their yachts along the coastline and being cheered on by other supporters from the shore.

As she photographed and interviewed the participants on land, Bruce kept seeing the same skull graphic, over and over again, on attendees’ hats and T-shirts. Though the rendering wasn’t immediately familiar to her, she used VizPol, a mobile app developed by Columbia researchers to provide journalists with context around unfamiliar political symbols, to identify it as the Punisher logo. When she went to her next Trump parade in nearby Washington, NC, a week later, she says, “I looked for all of the symbols while I was there.”

Despite the decidedly anti-establishment leanings of both the Punisher character and its creator, the distinctive skull logo has, in recent years, become associated with the military, law enforcement, and, now, Donald Trump. It is precisely this continuous evolution in symbols’ meaning that inspired the creation of the VizPol app, which is designed to provide journalists like Bruce with another layer of context to apply when they are out reporting. Some of the political symbols that VizPol recognizes — like the Kekistan flag — are artifacts of the internet, while others — like the Betsy Ross flag — associate new meanings with existing graphic symbols. Determining the significance of a political symbol requires more than simple recognition, however; it takes additional reporting to assess its intended message. In Bruce’s experience at the Trump parade, attendees wearing the Punisher logo were happy to share their views with her, via statements along the lines of: “There will be a reckoning for those who have been against Trump.”

Many of the symbols that VizPol identifies are cultural symbols, like the Odal rune, that have been adopted by ideological groups and thus politicized, at least within the U.S. context. Yet the successful appropriation of the Punisher symbol for political (and merchandising) purposes is a bit more perplexing: both the character and logo are owned by Marvel, which is owned by Disney, a company not known for its lax attitude toward copyright infringement. In the late 1980s, for example, Disney infamously threatened to sue a daycare center in Hallandale, Florida, for unauthorized use of its signature characters as building decorations. More recently, the entertainment giant’s protection efforts have focused on their Star Wars properties: in 2017, they sued the company Characters for Hire, LLC, for offering live, costumed re-enactments of storylines from the franchise for kids’ birthday parties. Earlier this year, a number of high-profile Etsy sellers saw their “Baby Yoda” listings removed after the retail platform received complaints from Disney. (This is not to suggest that Disney’s approach to copyright enforcement is always obvious: when the NYPD asked the company to sue Times Square performers dressed as Minnie Mouse and Spiderman for copyright infringement in 2015, Disney declined.)

Other corporations have actively sought to distance their brands from the contemporary political associations of even traditional symbols. In 2019, for example, Nike scrapped a Betsy Ross flag shoe after spokesperson Colin Kaepernick objected to the flag’s historical pro-slavery associations (which have likely led to its contemporary embrace by white supremacist organizations).

Yet in the case of the Punisher, Disney appears to have been strangely silent about the use of its intellectual property for political purposes. On Etsy, for example, one finds a wide range of Punisher-themed merchandise, from MAGA hats featuring a Punisher skull to QAnon Punisher T-shirts. And while Punisher creator Gerry Conway recently helped launch a set of Black Lives Matter “Punisher” merchandise designed by Black creators as a way to reclaim the character from its law enforcement and white supremacist associations, “Thin Blue Line” Mickey Mouse/Punisher mashup pins are still available on Etsy and can be located through a simple “punisher mickey” keyword search on the platform.

When the Punisher logo turned up on patches worn by Detroit police officers during recent protests following the killing of George Floyd, Marvel told Gizmodo that it is taking the infringement of its intellectual property “very seriously,” though they declined to be more specific than referring reporters to their previously released statements on racism and inclusion. In the meantime, the Punisher symbol — whether on police cars or bearing Trump hair — continues to be used for very particular political ends, with no clear indication of where Disney stands.

Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

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