Deadmau5 — aka Joel Zimmerman — unleashed fury upon The Walt Disney Company in early September for opposing his attempt to register a trademark of the signature mouse head he wears while performing. On Twitter, the DJ told his 3 million followers how “stupid” it was that anyone could confuse him with a cartoon. What he left unsaid: that the dispute has cost him dearly.
In July, Disney’s music division extended an offer for the DJ to remix the Star Wars theme for the animated series Star Wars Rebels, according to several sources close to the situation. Although Deadmau5, 33, is already among the most successful EDM acts in the world, the exposure would have been immense: Disney was promising daily promotional spots on the Disney XD channel, which reaches more than 260 million households in 141 countries. But the music group wasn’t aware that its parent company had been investigating Deadmau5’s trademark since March. When Deadmau5 sought to protect his mark on a wide range goods, from toys to mayonnaise to walking sticks, the offer was pulled.
Up until that point, there had been nearly a decade of detente, as Disney made no formal move to object to Deadmau5 potentially diluting its trademarks associated with its iconic character Mickey Mouse. In fact, when Disney acquired LucasArts in 2012, one of its new assets was Xbox game Kinect Star Wars, which had licensed Deadmau5’s “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff” for a special mode that featured a dancing Darth Vader. Sources say the parties are now investigating this deal as potential evidence that Deadmau5’s existence caused no concern on Disney’s part. (Reps for Disney and Deadmau5 both declined Billboard’s request for comment on the Star Wars matter.)
Nevertheless, a public brawl wasn’t inevitable. On Aug. 18, Deadmau5’s company attempted a new mouse-head registration. This one included the artist’s name on the bottom — likely an olive branch aimed to show that co-existence is possible. In any case, it came too late. Disney was under a quickly approaching deadline to oppose Deadmau5’s other registration. On Sept. 2, the company went ahead with a 171-page filing at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Having lost a lucrative opportunity to remix the Star Wars theme and staring at a mammoth trademark opposition, Deadmau5, as he frequently does, took his scorn to Twitter, tweeting on Sept. 2, “Lawyer up Mickey.” His reps had by then discovered that “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff” was being used in a video on Disney’s website in an alleged violation of copyright. On Friday, the video was taken down. However, a rep for Disney insists the music was “appropriately licensed” and that its trademark opposition is “not about the use of the Deadmau5 costume.”
Trademark battles can outlast many artists’ careers. If this does make it to trial, expect the parties to conduct consumer surveys to determine whether a likelihood of confusion exists. Deadmau5’s quip about whether fans are stupid enough to be fooled by the sight of a mouse silhouette might end up being more than rhetorical.
An edited version of this story orginally appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of Billboard.