How Not Overly Enforcing Its IP, Universal Made The Minions Ubiquitous And Beloved

from the building-bigger-markets-through-allowing-piracy dept

No one is ever going to confuse Hollywood giant Universal Studios with, say, EFF’s view on more permissive copyright. However, Polygon recently had a really interesting article on how Universal’s comparatively minimal focus on cracking down on the incidental (and fun) uses of its Minions characters have made the characters well known, ubiquitous… and well loved. And, as the article notes, a hell of a lot more relevant today than Mickey Mouse, owned by Disney — which is famous for its unwillingness to allow anyone to make use of its characters.

And they’re almost certainly on the walls of a number of day care facilities. Universal Studios — parent company of Illumination, the animation studio that blessed us with Minions — did not put them there. The Minions aren’t public domain. But you wouldn’t know it by the many ways people have taken ownership of them. And Universal’s comparatively hands-off attitude toward Minion litigation has arguably paid off — by making them as recognizable and culturally front-and-center as Mickey, if not more so.

I take a little issue with the framing of the article, which calls them “practically public domain” because clearly they are not, and Universal certainly has its own long history of being copyright bullies.

But there is a big lesson to be learned here. By deciding not to enforce every use, by not freaking out that someone else out there is having a little fun with your characters (there’s no way I’m calling it “your IP” because fuck that), Universal has actually made its characters more relevant than perhaps the most well known cartoon character of the 20th century.

Disney, of course, has a long history of locking up culture rather than freeing it:

Disney’s playbook has always been to rewrite public domain fairy tales into copyrighted versions, then mold an ecosystem where any other adaptation of the original story comes off as the bootleg. When Disney was able to lobby Washington to extend its copyrights on its trademarked characters in 1998, it was after the studio returned to the zeitgeist with a new generation of uber-popular rewrites of other people’s stories: The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.

And, as the article notes, Universal comes out of that same basic tradition of locking up culture:

And Universal has a similar history as a studio. It kicked off its success with a string of adaptations of classic horror stories through the 1930s and 1940s: DraculaFrankensteinThe Wolf ManThe Invisible Man. Many of these stories are in the public domain, but Universal retains the rights to its own iterations, which have become the canonized versions in the public imagination.

And, yes, somehow, over the last few years, by taking many of the traditional copyright shackles off of the Minions, it’s actually helped Universal a lot more than it’s hurt the company:

And as this is all happening, the Minions continue to spread across murals, memes, and the internet at large, still smelling like the tube they were squeezed from. They’ll continue to belong to Universal Studios for many years. But in their case that seems functionally irrelevant. How would it look any different if the Minions were public domain? There is nowhere that the Minions are not.

Indeed, the article makes a point that we’ve been trying to make for decades: often times, when the so-called “infringement” is coming from your biggest fans, they’re actually providing you with free marketing for your underlying product.

Just as Frankenstein gives Universal Studios permanent real estate on a chunk of the public consciousness, the unchecked spread of the Minions has vastly increased awareness of Illumination’s work, paving the way for Despicable Me and its spinoffs to steadily continue their advance in a world where the entire internet seems willing to handle Universal’s marketing efforts for free. It suggests that the money, clout, and nostalgia forged from ubiquity can outweigh — or at least significantly amplify — the dollars reeled in from toy sales alone. Maybe Universal has created a monster it cannot control, or maybe it just doesn’t want to. Either way, it’s mastered the process of profiting from that monster’s ever-expanding adventures.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t actually quote anyone at Universal to see if this is a conscious strategy, or just something that has happened by accident. Given the way Universal has acted for years, I’m not sure I’d trust the company to continue behaving in this mostly sensible manner.

That said, even if we ignore the fact that Universal might turn out to be just as bad as Disney in the long run on this, at the very least, hopefully others can take this as a lesson: rather than feeling the need to overly enforce your copyrights every chance you get, perhaps there’s even more benefit to letting people make use of the work and help you spread it and make it ubiquitous.

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Companies: disney, nbc universal, universal studios

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Comments on “How Not Overly Enforcing Its IP, Universal Made The Minions Ubiquitous And Beloved”

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

the article doesn’t actually quote anyone at Universal to see if this is a conscious strategy, or just something that has happened by accident

I’d bet that Universal wouldn’t want to admit to either one, if only to keep itself out of any potential legal kerfluffles.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2

1989’s when they became automatic.

That’s not what the previous sentence’s link says, wherein the Wikipedia quote is

Under the 1976 Act, however, section 102 says that copyright protection extends to original works that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression.

So that means because of the 1976 act, which came into effect in 1978, © became automatic once an original work is fixed in a tangible form.

Naughty Autie says:

Re: Re: Re:3

The full quote:

Under section 102 of the Act, copyright protection extends to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device”.

That didn’t make copyright automatic, it just saved legislators the effort of updating the law every time a new format came on the market, such as CDs in 1982 and MP3s nine years later. Don’t forget that there had been many technological advances since the last major revision to US copyright law in 1909, so the potential issues caused by playing catch-up would have been uppermost in the legislators’ minds, as stated in the article at that same link.

Kaleberg says:


One of the reasons Frankenstein is still so popular after two centuries is that Shelley never tried enforcing her rights when countless stage adaptations and other derivative works appeared starting shortly after the book was published. The author noted that many more people knew her story and character through unlicensed works than had read the book. Amusingly, Frankenstein’s deformed assistant, not in the book, appeared even in early productions, originally as Fritz but soon after as the canonical Igor.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think it’s likelier that Universal took a look at Disney doing dumb shit like banning Frozen singalongs and opted to let one of their competitors waste themselves.

My guess is Disney has at least not opted to go all out on their litigious habits. Unfortunately for those who aren’t a fan of Moana or Encanto songs on repeat.

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

Enforcement May Be Selective

It is relatively easy to paint a yellow capsule on a wall. Several, even. Yeah, you need a little talent for painting, but your physical requirements are not great.

The problem is that it is much more difficult to stamp out plastic toy minions, if you do not have an appropriate factory. So when kids, encouraged by the ``free” murals, want the toys. the parents will wind up going to vendors who stamp out licensed goods.

A smarter mouse would have probably operated on the same theory: easy to paint grey circles on a wall, difficult to stamp out branded goods.

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