The story of how Joy Division met Mickey Mouse in the greatest trademark case that never was.


Last week’s KI2Y post about the unlawful appropriation of popular songs by politicians produced a flood of email from my thousands of readers around the globe.  Folks shared my bemusement at how clueless, entitled, and arrogant the infringing candidates were, and not a few remarked on how crappy their taste in music was.  Everyone seemed to enjoy Charlie Crist’s video apology to David Byrne — the schadenfraude levels were off the charts.

So, staying on the dimwit musical trademark violation tip, I’d be remiss not to mention the remarkable transgression perpetrated by the Disney Empire against Joy Division.  If you hadn’t heard, last January Disney began selling a Mickey Mouse t-shirt “inspired by the iconic sleeve of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album” on its website.  (The image, taken from an astronomy text, shows the successive pulses of the first discovered pulsar.)  You just read that correctly: Disney was selling a Mickey Mouse t-shirt inspired by Joy Division.  How could it be that a rock band known for bleakness and death became the basis for happy mousewear?  Legal hilarity was bound to ensue but, unfortunately, the company pulled the item before anyone had a chance to fire off an are-you-kidding-me infringement threat.  Even though no lawsuit was filed, the whole episode offers a great lesson in what surely would have been the most improbable trademark suit ever.  

First, a little background.  Joy Division formed in Manchester in 1976, 10 seconds after seeing the Sex Pistols perform in a local student union.  The band’s name is a reference to the sex slaves kept for Nazi officers in WWII concentration camps.  The group dressed monochromatically in grays and blacks.  Their songs were distinguished by singer Ian Curtis’s lyrics of misery and despair, delivered in his unsettling baritone.  Their music was eerie, sparse, arrhythmic, menacing.  Fan favorites were titled ‘Isolation’ and ‘Atrocity Exhibit.’  John Bush of Allmusic described Joy Division as the first post-punk band, “emphasizing not anger and energy but mood and expression, pointing ahead to the rise of melancholy alternative music in the ’80s.”  ‘Melancholy’ is a bit of an understatement.  The group’s Wikipedia entry observes that ”coldness, pressure, darkness, crisis, failure, collapse, and loss of control” were Curtis’s recurrent themes.  

While Joy Division’s popularity grew, Curtis spiraled into depression.  He became entangled in an affair that ruined his marriage.  He suffered from epilepsy and his seizures embarrassed him and made it increasingly difficult for him to perform.  The self-doubt and despair he sang of resonated so deeply because it was not a pose; it was tragically biographical.  The night before the band’s first American tour in May 1980, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself over a door in his parents’ house.  He was 23.




Welcome to Disneyland, The Happiest Place On Earth!  We’ve got rides, high-caloric snacks and all kinds of swell merchandise, too!  Here, check out this smart new gear:

Disney put the happenin’ item up for $25.

The listing on its store website read: “Inspired by the iconic sleeve of Joy Division’sUnknown Pleasures album, this Waves Mickey Mouse Tee incorporates Mickey’s image within the graphic of the pulse of a star.  That‘s appropriate given few stars have made bigger waves than Mickey!”   Look right for a close up on the t-shirt Oswaldo is rockin’.

And there you have it: the Joy Division Mickey Mouse t-shirt.  The Unhappiest T-Shirt on Earth.

I am not making this up, by the way.

The remaining members of the band went on to re-group as New Order and enjoyed massive critical and commercial success.  And, over 30 years after their untimely demise, Joy Division’s legacy continues to grow.  They are justifiably seen as pioneers of several types of alternative music including goth, industrial, and electronica.  Their catalog has been reissued and repackaged numerous times.  There is a proliferation of websites dedicated to the band and Curtis.  The group were portrayed in the movie 24-Hour Party People, followed by the biopic about Curtis, Control.  In particular, the album cover of Unknown Pleasures has been adopted as the band’s symbol and is cherished by gloomy enthusiasts the world over.  My man below, for instance.

Which brings us to the trademark case that never was.  A trademark is an image, word or phrase denoting the source of goods or services.  You see Nike’s swoosh and you immediately think of sneakers and sportswear, and maybe overseas child labor abuse.  Rock groups have long had their own logos: the Stones’ tongue, the Grateful Dead’s lightning skull, the Beatles’ Apple, the Ramones’ pinhead, etc. etc.  In the same way, you see the white ridged lines over the black square and you recognize Joy Division.  Someone on the ball at Disney corporate quickly realized the blunder and yanked the shirt off the shelves within 2 days, leaving only incredulous amusement at the bizarre connection.

The above shows you what might have been the basis of a fun trademark lawsuit — a G-rated corporation hawks apparel showing a twisted version of the logo of a beloved underground band, naturally without the band’s permission.  Now, it could be argued that the Mickey variation was meant as a parody, some sort of loopy derivative work, and therefore entitled to First Amendment protection.  After all, surely no one would confuse America’s perkiest, fun-lovin’ rodent with a gloomy Mancunian post-punk outfit with an epileptic suicidal frontman?  Even the band’s former bassist, Peter Hook, seemed nonplussed about the idea.  He told the L.A. Times, ”I take it as a compliment.  If I had a pound for every time someone bootlegged Joy Division, I’d be as rich as Disney.  But it’s interesting in a kitsch way.  It’s this cross between something very adult and this well-known image of childhood.”  

Too bad.  The most we can hope for is some new Disney merch like Pinocchio action figures in Angus Young AC/DC regalia (“I’m a real bad boy!”), or perhaps Cinderella bedsheets showing the innocent lass in KISS face paint?  Maybe the Aristocats in Sgt. Pepper surplus?    The possibilities are endless…Sigh.

[This post in honor of N. Morris]

About the Author

Jonny Balfus

I was supposed to be a rock star but, through no fault of my own, ended up an intellectual property lawyer in Los Angeles. I'm not saying that's your fault, but I'm not not saying it, if you know what I mean.

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