Protecting the Gremlins

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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How do you protect your characters? Of course, there are copyrights and trademarks, but you have to demonstrate that the character is still being used and you have to aggressively defend any violation. That's the reason for all those stories of Disney being "mean" to day care centers and children's hospitals using unlicensed images of Disney characters.

If Disney did not send a firm letter, then they could not legitimately defend themselves in court from more egregious violations of the use of their characters.

How do you protect yourself if you are using public domain characters like Snow White, Pinocchio, Davy Crockett, and others? The bottom line is that you can copyright and trademark YOUR version of the characters, even including the location of colors and percentage of each color on Snow White's dress.

In 1985, Filmation announced it would produce 13 animated feature length films beginning with The New Adventures of Pinocchio. They were each budgeted at about $6 million and would be 90-minutes long. The plan was to release each film theatrically, then to home video, followed by a television release. Filmation claimed that their research showed a strong demand for family entertainment and a shortage of "quality animated product."

The other planned films included Snow White and the Seven Dwarfelles, The Challenge of Cinderella, Time Machine II: The Man Who Saved the Future, Bambi: Prince of the Forest, 20 Million Leagues Across the Universe, Frankenstein Lives Again!, The Further Adventures of Gulliver, The Son of Sleeping Beauty, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, The Continuing Adventures of The Jungle Book, New Tales of The Arabian Nights and Alice Returns to Wonderland.

Disney sued to halt these productions, but Filmation countered that the characters and stories were in public domain. The judge decided in Filmation's favor but stated that after the films were released, if any part infringed on Disney's intellectual property, Disney could then sue.

Only two of the announced features eventually got made: Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987) and Happily Ever After (1993). For the Pinocchio movie, Filmation could use Gepetto, who was in the original book, but not the name of Jiminy Cricket which was a Disney creation.

Filmation changed the name of the cricket to "G. Willikers" which was another popular exclamation. Snow White had female dwarfs and the name of the film had to be changed from Snow White in the Land of Doom.

Disney even has to protect characters it developed that never appeared in a film.


The Gremlins in an ad for Life Savers, it was one Roald Dahl was not happy about — and told Walt Disney so.

One of the most intriguing animated feature films that Walt Disney planned to make was The Gremlins, about the mythological creatures of the air that plagued the Royal Air Force (RAF).

One of Walt's plans to popularize the proposed film and to acquaint Americans with the concept of gremlins was to have a short story about gremlins appear in the December 1942 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine produced by the Disney Studios. It was to be written by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl and illustrated by Bill Justice.

Roy Disney wrote to Walt on October 26, 1942:

"We now have in the studio the fully executed contract with Lt. Dahl on the Gremlin story. The contract provides that the copyright on the first magazine story in Cosmopolitan and any subsequent ones will be assigned to us.

"So, with this article and its accompanying illustrations, our copyright will be effective very soon. It will be an international copyright through publication in Canada simultaneously."

A year later, the story was expanded with some additional story changes and released as the book The Gremlins: From the Walt Disney Production A Royal Air Force Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl in 1943 by Random House (officially making it the first book ever written by Dahl) and consisted of a 50,000 copy print run for the U.S. market that sold out within the first six months.

If Walt Disney had initially feared that one of his challenges with doing the Gremlin film was acquainting American audiences with the concept of the British Gremlins, the beginning of 1943 showed that the real fear was that "Gremlin mania," as it was dubbed by the press, threatened Disney's exclusive rights to the characters.

Count Basie recorded a song called Dance of the Gremlins. A short-lived daily comic strip drawn by Dorman Smith for the NEA syndicate titled "The Gremlins" ran from January 4 – May 15, 1943. Fashionable ladies began wearing "Gremlin Hats"; while still more magazine and newspaper articles and references to gremlins began to flood the American consciousness threatening that gremlins were on the verge of being a very public domain property.

Other animation studios were registering titles for possible gremlin short animated cartoons to try to capitalize on gremlin mania. Warner Brothers, Columbia, MGM and Universal had all registered titles for cartoons and Roy O. Disney interceded personally with each of the studio heads not to proceed.

Two animated shorts were already too far into production at Warners when Roy O. Disney requested that Warner Brothers producer Leon Schlesinger not produce a gremlin short. Schlesinger did change the original titles from Bugs Bunny and the Gremlin to Falling Hare (1943) and Gremlins from the Kremlin (1944) was changed to Russian Rhapsody.

The story in Cosmopolitan had helped as did the publication of the book. It was decided that emphasizing the character of Gremlin Gus would help in establishing a distinctive Disney gremlin copyright.

Disney merchandise executive Kay Kamen arranged for a variety of products to be produced quickly, including the inclusion of a series of stories of Gremlin Gus in one of the highest-selling monthly comic books of all time, Walt Disney's Comics and Stories from Western Publishing.

Seamstress Charlotte Clark, responsible for the early Mickey Mouse stuffed dolls, produced dolls based on the Disney designs for Gremlins, Fifinellas, and Widgets for publicity purposes, and there are several existing photos of Walt and Dahl posing happily with the dolls.

The cover of the May 1943 issue of Playthings magazine (the national magazine of the toy trade at the time) announced "Walt Disney's Gremlins of the R.A.F." and featured on the cover a puzzled fighter pilot whose Hurricane fighter is infested by a widget, a fifinella and a gremlin (who is drilling holes in the right wing).

A small box at the side stated:

"Like all Walt Disney characters, Walt Disney 'Gremlins' are authentic. The definition of 'authentic' is --- 'having a genuine origin or authority'. That origin or authority is the R.A.F. All drawings, all titles, all scripts are fully covered by U.S. and foreign copyrights. All rights reserved. Walt Disney GREMLINS offer unusual opportunities for merchandising tie-ups. For further information write or call: KAY KAMEN representing Walt Disney Productions."

The Character Novelty Company (a Disney licensee from 1940-1947) manufactured a Widget hand puppet in at least three different colors: pink, yellow, and grey. The puppet, which was produced in 1943, originally sold for $1.50 with a paper tag that read: "This is an exclusive Walt Disney design of one of the famous Gremlin characters discovered by the R.A.F."

"A Walt Disney Picture Puzzle" from the Jaymar company in 1943 had more than 300 pieces showcasing a color illustration of 11 gremlins, one widget and one fifinella attacking an Allied fighter plane with the addition of left and right vertical margins featuring characters from the then un-produced film.

Disney licensee W.L. Stensgaard and Associates created several full-sized Gremlins figures constructed out of papier-mâché. One set was used by the Dayton Company, a fur storage company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The display with a sign stating "The Gremlin Fur Destruction Committee" featured four three-dimensional figure Gremlins doing mischief to furs.

Another way, the Disney Studios attempted to secure all rights to the Disney version of the gremlins characters was by licensing them to appear in a full color, full page magazine ad for Mint-O-Green, Spear-Mint and Pep-O-Mint Life Savers candy that appeared in LOOK magazine in 1943.

Life Savers were a ring-shaped hard candy meant as a summer candy that wouldn't melt in the heat like chocolate. Its name was derived from the fact that the individual pieces looked like life preservers used on ships, a circle with a hole in the middle. Amazingly during the World War II (when this Disney ad appeared), other candy manufacturers had donated their sugar rations to keep Life Savers in production so that the little candies could be shared with the military overseas. Not only did the candy survive being shipped especially to tropic zones better than chocolate, it was a small package that reminded those serving in the military of memories of home. During the war years, the company supplied 23 million boxes of Life Savers to the Armed Forces. Rolls of Life Savers were packed into the American G.I. field ration kits….along with free cigarettes.

This use of the Gremlins in the approximately 13.5-inch by 10.25-inch Life Saver advertisement would help introduce the Disney designs of the characters to the public and hopefully build anticipation for the forthcoming film as well as associating them with a beloved treat.

There was a copyright for Walt Disney Productions to the lower right side of the illustration confirming Disney's ownership of these particular Gremlins. In addition, the ad produced some unexpected but appreciated licensing revenue that could be used to offset the mounting costs for the development of the film.

The top two-thirds of the page had an illustration (with Walt Disney's famous signature in the lower-right-hand side) featuring a dozen colorful Gremlins, Fifinellas and Widgets desperately running away from gigantic rolling Life Savers (red, yellow, orange and green) and toward the reader, with a few of them flattened by the candy treats.

The text for the advertisement read:

"GREMLIN CHASERS. You've heard of the Gremlins…pesky little troublemakers that hang around air fields…army camps…ports of call…and battle stations. One good antidote for Gremlins is LIFE SAVERS…they cheer a fellow up when the Gremlins get him down.

"Maybe that's why our armed forces are ordering so many of them…so…if you have trouble getting some favorite flavor…blame it on the Gremlins."

The ad prompted Dahl, who was becoming even more difficult in regards to how Disney was handling his Gremlins, in a letter dated May 19, 1943 to protest about the possible damage to the mystique of the characters being used in such an obvious commercial way:

"I nearly fell off my chair when I opened LOOK magazine this morning and saw the Life Saver advertisement with our Gremlins in it. Imagine then my horror at finding a group of the little men, not to mention the Widgets and the Fifinellas, busily engaged in playing around with a lot of over-sized and bilious looking peppermint life savers!

"I was horrified not only because the Gremlins were being completely misrepresented, but also because I could see you destroying in the eyes of the public the legend around which you are going to build your film, and upon which the success of the whole movie will depend. We hope to infuse a certain mystic quality into the film, and in order to achieve this we must try to avoid Pep-O-Mint and Wint-O-Green tablets.

"Please do not think that I do not realize that you depend to a great extent for your revenue upon advertising rights and that it is essential for you to make use of this medium if you are going to make any profits out of the deal, but surely you realize that if the public are going to see Gremlins playing with peppermints, hitching up bicycles, trying out tooth brushes, and telling the people that if they use Listerine Antiseptic, they will not get dandruff in their hair, then I think, in fact I am convinced, that the legend will be ruined.

"You see, people are beginning to regard you as an authority on these things, which is as it should be because you are rapidly becoming one through the medium of your advisers; therefore, anything you say about Gremlins from now on, goes.

"I suggest that you give very serious consideration to the following: that the use of Gremlins in advertising should, where possible, be confined solely to aircraft manufacturers or to makers of aircraft parts, and that the things you make them do in your pictures should be the things which they normally do anyway. This will preserve the whole idea.

"If financial considerations make it impossible for you to narrow down the sales of advertising rights to this extent, then the makers of peppermint tablets, gum and toothpaste will have to have an airplane, a real well-drawn airplane, embodied in their advertisements if they wish to utilize Gremlins.

"And on this airplane the Gremlins can be shown going about their business. I can see that there might well be difficulties over this, but surely it is the only way of dealing with the matter and of preserving the true character of the story.

"I am sorry to be a nuisance over all of this, but I am quite sure that not only you, but Jim (Bodereo) and Ted (Sears), and others working on the subject will know how I feel and what the R.A.F. would think; so could you please let me have your reactions by return.

"Between us I am sure that we can come to some arrangement. Yours very sincerely, Stalky." (Stalky was Dahl's nickname.)

Walt very patiently reassured Dahl that it was all just part of the process to establish copyright in a reply dated May 26, 1943:

"Your letter of May 19th received and contents noted. You may rest assured that any suggestions you have will always be given careful consideration. A copy of your letter is being sent to my brother, Roy, and Mr. Kay Kamen in New York. However, I would like to correct an impression which was indicated in your letter.

"It is not the financial returns with which we are concerned, but through this medium we are able to establish our rights to characters through various forms of publication, and unless these rights are established, we may not have any control over the Gremlins when they do come out. Our entire idea is one to establish our copyrights with no thought whatever of financial gain.

"I think you better have a talk with Mr. Kamen and Roy as I believe you have the wrong impression of just how we function. We have reached a point in the story where, I believe, it would be helpful if you could make arrangements to come out for a period of at least two months so that, together, we can whip the story into its final shape.

"If you are not able to do this, I do not feel that I can be held responsible to the Royal Air Force for the finished treatment of this material. Therefore, I wish you would please do what you can to come to the studio for at least the time necessary to put the script into shape for production. I would appreciate knowing what the possibilities are for you to spend some time with us."

Dahl was unable to make arrangements to visit the Disney Studios to work on the treatment. By now, he was having to use his own unpaid leave to do so and he was reluctant to do so and felt trapped.

Kamen wrote to Roy Disney on June 1, 1943:

"I just called Lt. Dahl long-distance and had a nice chat and explained to him that I didn't believe that the proper understanding existed about the way in which we have to handle Walt Disney subjects for the purposes of protection and for other reasons, and that it was quite difficult to handle the subject in a long-distance telephone conversation.

"Basically when the operator asks you to limit it to 5 minutes, and that it was also quite impossible to handle the subject by correspondence, and that I thought it would be nice for him and me to have a visit either in Washington or New York quite soon.

"Dahl agreed with all of this and was very nice and I am quite sure that we will get together in a few days and that everything will be satisfactory to him. I am sorry that he and I did not meet sooner to get to know each other, but it will straighten out in the end."

This incident was just only one of many continuing challenges between Dahl and the Disney Studios about the proper presentation of Gremlins that added to the film not moving along as quickly as it should have at this point.

By 1943, Walt abandoned the Gremlins film. Dahl never seemed pleased and kept demanding more yet never seemed available for consultation so it became a struggle to get things done. In addition, Walt learned that many R.A.F. pilots considered it all a joke, rather than quaint folklore like leprechauns and that by the time he actually made the film, the war would be long over.

Animation historian John Cawley wrote: "By February (1943), it appeared that all the forces on Earth were fighting the completion of the film. Polls showed that filmgoers were tiring of war theme pictures. An Associated Press article titled 'Gremlin Stuff is Getting Tiresome' echoed many media columnists when it stated that 'They've been whimsied to pieces', and that 'very soon any member of the general public who ventures to wax coy about them will run the risk of getting his itsy-bitsy block stoved in,'"

However, by establishing Disney's ownership of the characters, it allowed the company to use them in comic book stories for foreign publication, the Epic Mickey video games, new merchandise from Dark Horse and more many decades after they were first created. That's why it is important for Disney to protect its characters.