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Disney's penchant for lawsuits called "grumpy and mean-spirited." (Walt Disney Co.)

"You're in Hollywood now." No "fair deal" here is what the Walt Disney Company seems to have become famous for.

According to Spy magazine, two characters representative of Disney's 1990 ethos are "Attorney," the dwarf who thrives on litigation, and "Picky," the executive who browbeats writers, directors, producers and actors.

And in Newsweek: "Disney writes the book on being tough. They'll sue anybody and anything."

Reportedly, each year Disney initiates some 800 lawsuits and regulatory cases. Of these, 25 per cent are copyright and trademark related. "When it comes to intellectual property, you can't be too litigious," is how Disney's chairman, Michael D. Eisner, is quoted as saying in Barron's, which called Disney's executives "control freaks."

Meanwhile, in pursuit of achieving total control, Disney tried to sue three private children's centers in Florida, for decorating their walls with Disney's characters. (On the other hand, MCA gave the centers permission to use its characters.) A few months earlier, Disney sued the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, over the unauthorized use of Snow White during the Oscar telecast.

As Barron's noted, "Disney has a reputation as a bare-knuckled litigator."

The irony is that Disney's recent reputation as a "Grumpy and meanspirited" company, has been built by trying control the image of characters like Cinderella, Pinocchio, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, etc., - all characters created before Disney by authors such as Charles Parrault (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood), Brothers Grimm (Snow White), Hans Christian Andersen (Little Mermaid), and others.

However, Dan Brenner, a professor at UCLA School of Law, pointed out that Disney might have copyrighted the costumes which are, therefore, entitled to protection.

Thus, on the one hand, Disney has to protect its image, and indeed, it is a very image-conscious company. On the other hand, it has to guard its interests. And, at times, as indicated by Brenner, Disney likes to send tough messages on principle. And, to apply that principle, Disney has 101 lawyers (99 in Burbank, CA, two in New York City) that, like their famous Dalmations, cover all of Disney's 13 or so divisions.

Such a large legal staff allows Disney not only to "terrorize" potential bootleggers, antagonists, competitors and business associates, but also to creatively leverage the fine points of the law to its advantage.

In Long Beach, CA, where Disney wants to build a sea resort, environmentalists charged that "Disney needs to make their project conform to the law, not the law conform to their project."

In Florida, Disney was able to take $57.7 million in local government funds for Disney World, when the money was to be allocated for low income housing.

Disney's "sheer corporate arrogance," as defined in a suit filed by Henson Associates, is also having repercussions in Europe, where the Disney Park in France is referred to by some as "a cultural Chernobyl."

Competitors are not immune from Disney's long legal arm. Last year, Disney sued Fox TV over children's programming, whose affiliates called the litigation "intimidation charges."

Business associates were put on notice, when Disney filed suit over the "defection" of David Kirkpatrick.

Disney's penchant for stretching the law is bringing on some unique lawsuits for the company, mostly related to rights infringement, like the one filed by Henson Associates when Disney began using the Henson characters without a license. This suit was settled with Disney paying for the rights. An independent screenwriter filed suit against Disney, saying that the Touchstone movie, Honey, I Shrank the Kids was based on his screenplay, The Formula, previously rejected by Disney.

The Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan sued Disney for "failing" to make residual payments on its animated feature films.

Recently, Peggy Lee won a $2.3 million award for her 1988 lawsuit against Disney, for a share of the profit from the sale of the 1955 animated film, Lady and the Tramp. The actress, now 70 and an invalid, co-wrote six songs, and provided voices for four of the film's characters. Similarly, Ilene Woods Shaughnessy, who provided the voice of Cinderella, sued Disney as well as Mary Costa, for her voice as the princess in Sleeping Beauty. They later settled.

Fortunately, the situation may soon change. The Los Angeles Times quoted a Disney executive: "We also know that we'd better change. It's been win-win for us for a long time. But it's time we introduced some compassion and sensitivity into the process." Explained Roy Disney, Walt's nephew and Disney's vice chairman, defined by Barron's as the one who carries the torch for the traditional Disney values: "As the company gets bigger, its easy for it to lose what we stand for."
COPYRIGHT 1991 TV Trade Media, Inc.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Video Age International
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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