Mickey’s Adventures in China: Theme Park Wars and Copyright


Source: shutterstock

You will likely never see the day when Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, two of the most famous cartoon characters in Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes stable walk up the main street of Disneyland to greet Mickey and Donald. But that in effect is what happened at the premiere of a new theme park in China, Nanchang Wanda Cultural Tourism City, the brainchild of Wang Jianlin, reputedly China’s richest individual and chairman of real estate and entertainment conglomerate Dalian Wanda. It was reported in western media that visitors to the new theme park were greeted by costumed staff in the guise of copyrighted Disney favourites Snow White, Captain America and Star Wars Storm Troopers. This would particularly rankle the Walt Disney Company, given the investment that the company commits to developing and protecting its brand as personified by its characters, and given the trash talk engaged in by Wang about Disney’s presence in China. Just a couple of weeks prior to the opening of Disney’s flagship park in Shanghai, scheduled for June 16, Wang gave an interview to China Central Television (CCTV) in which he criticized Disney for entering the China market and said that Disney’s lone Mainland theme park would be devoured by Wanda’s “pack of wolves”, meaning the numerous parks—up to 15– that he has or plans to open in China.

Disney has already learned some difficult lessons about adapting its brand to the China market through the theme park that it opened in Hong Kong in 2005. That enterprise, a joint venture (JV) with the Hong Kong Government, got off to a rocky start and attendance did not initially match expectations. But Disney buckled down, absorbed the lessons learned, and increased its investment. The park finally turned a profit in 2012. No doubt Disney planners have taken into account their Hong Kong experience in preparing for the launch of their showpiece in Shanghai. Although strongly supported by the Shanghai government Disney, like other western brands, has struggled to get national distribution for its animated character film and television content in China. This distribution is an important promotional tool for the theme parks. China restricts foreign animation on TV and—although it has eased quota limits somewhat in recent years—maintains tight restrictions on the number of foreign films that can be released in China annually. That of course includes animated films. Disney is planning to work around these restrictions to some extent by engaging in co-production ventures with Chinese media giant Shanghai Media Group. And of course, despite Chinese restrictions, Mickey and his friends are famous world-wide including in China.

Disney will be taking Chairman Wang’s challenge seriously. Dalien Wanda is a formidable opponent and Disney, like western companies in other sectors, is no doubt finding the playing field somewhat uneven when it comes to the China market. China is eager to absorb technology and expertise, and will offer the potential of its enormous market to entice western investment. But once the technology and market expertise has been absorbed, the Chinese government has a habit of trying to squeeze out the foreign competition in China to the benefit of Chinese companies—and then encouraging those companies to compete with their erstwhile foreign investor partners in their home market. Dalien Wanda has followed this model. At one point it had a JV with Warner Bros International Cinemas to design and develop cinemas in China. That ended after Wanda decided it didn’t need its foreign partner any longer, and Warner unceremoniously exited the Chinese cinema market. Dalien Wanda however went on to one success after another, opening hundreds of multiplexes in China tied to its shopping malls and then moving to the US to acquire AMC Cinemas for $2.6 billion. Subsequently it expanded its reach in the US film industry by acquiring Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion.

One of the areas where the playing field traditionally has been far from level in China is intellectual property (IP). Respect for copyright, trademarks and patents has been severely lacking even as China has climbed the IP ladder itself. In the area of copyright, the list of problems cited by International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) in its 2016 Special 301 submission on China ranged from media and set top box piracy to sites that index pirated books to next generation pay TV signal theft to camcording in cinemas to other evolving forms of online and mobile piracy. So why should we be surprised at knock offs of Disney characters in a Chinese theme park? In response, Dalien Wanda issued a statement denying that it was responsible for deploying the Disney lookalikes;

“Media reports say that Disney characters appeared within Wanda Park. This is inaccurate. The characters in question appeared in the business area of the Wanda Mall inside the Nanchang Wanda Cultural Tourism City. Nanchang Wanda Cultural Tourism City, or Nanchang Wanda City, is a multi-business complex that houses Wanda Mall, an outdoor theme Park, hotel resorts, a bar street, etc. Wanda Park, which is a combination of the theme park, ocean park and movie park, has never used any Disney characters for display or promotion. Some relevant stores within the Wanda Mall use Disney characters on some merchandise and for promotional purposes. The use is officially licensed by Disney. No infringement has occurred. Dalian Wanda Group attaches high importance to the protection of intellectual property rights, and Nanchang Wanda City owns several cartoon characters with their own intellectual properties…”

Well, perhaps…..although it is hard to believe that Disney would allow Bugs or Porky to get anywhere close to the Magic Kingdom. But things are done differently in China. Maybe we have a theme park with “Chinese characteristics”?

Building theme parks in China is not new. There have been booms and busts in the theme park business before and China currently has a plethora of second-rate attractions. How many theme parks does it need and which ones will succeed? In addition to Disney, Six Flags and Dreamworks are also building in China—and of course there is Dalien Wanda with its 15 mega-parks. Which ones will the Chinese public patronize? It’s a safe bet that the brand recognition of decades of character development and promotion—along with global experience in running parks that attract repeat business—will position Disney well. Thus it is no surprise that Disney was not amused by reports of its characters being hijacked at Nanchang Wanda City as it made clear in its statement, as reported by Bloomberg;

We vigorously protect our intellectual property and will take action to address infringement…Our characters and stories have delighted generations, these illegal and substandard imitations unfortunately disappoint all who expect more.”

As has been shown many times before, the main value of a company often rests in the intangibles of its copyrights and intellectual property. Wang Jianlin can build a mega entertainment city, and will no doubt be very successful, but he should do it without Mickey, Donald or Snow White.

© Hugh Stephens 2016 All Rights Reserved

Access Copyright vs York University: High Stakes for Canadian Culture

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Last week saw the beginning of a long-awaited trial pitting the authors and publishers collective, Access Copyright, against one of Canada’s largest universities, York University of Toronto. Continue reading “Access Copyright vs York University: High Stakes for Canadian Culture”

A Copyright Controversy: The Giant Rubber Ducky is Back

Photo: Wikimedia commons

There is no ducking it. Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant rubber ducky creation is back in the news, and once again is the centre of a controversy over copyright. Continue reading “A Copyright Controversy: The Giant Rubber Ducky is Back”

The Australian Productivity Commission’s Copyright Recommendations: Using a Sledgehammer to Kill a Fly (or Killing the Golden Goose)


When that pesky fly lands on your morning toast or afternoon scone, you can ignore it, or you can take reasonable responsive measures, such as closing the window, putting up a screen, or shooing it away. But if you don’t care about the consequences, you can take really draconian action like grabbing a sledgehammer to exterminate it once and for all. Of course, there might be some collateral damage, like broken chinaware, smashed fingers and a destroyed table, but for sure the fly will no longer be part of your life. That, it seems to me, is exactly what the Australian Productivity Commission has done in its Draft Report on Intellectual Property Arrangements, released on April 29 of this year. Continue reading “The Australian Productivity Commission’s Copyright Recommendations: Using a Sledgehammer to Kill a Fly (or Killing the Golden Goose)”

Whales, Copyright…..and Censorship?

Slide1A couple of months ago a story about the Vancouver Aquarium and copyright infringement caught my attention. It is not every day that whales and copyright get discussed in the same sentence. In this case the Aquarium had brought a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement against film-maker Gary Charbonneau, accusing him of lifting segments of his film (which was highly critical of the Aquarium’s whale, porpoise and dolphin program) from the Aquarium’s website without authorization. It was an interesting subject for a blog, I thought, illustrating the importance of copyright principles in daily life. A month or so later, the British Columbia Supreme Court issued an injunction at the request of the Aquarium requiring Charbonneau to remove from his film 15 contested segments, amounting to about 4 ½ minutes out of an hour long film. I updated my original blog to keep those interested informed of developments, and thought that would be that. But I was wrong. The “Whale of a (Copyright) Tale” story is the gift that keeps on giving, at least in terms of generating discussion of copyright issues. Continue reading “Whales, Copyright…..and Censorship?”

Blackbeard and the Modern Day Pirates

Blackbeard-www.pinterest.com(Creative Commons)
Blackbeard http://www.pinterest.com (Creative Commons)


Edward Teach was a notorious pirate, Blackbeard by nickname. Despite the “swashbuckling” image of pirates­ and the glorification of their exploits that has come down to us through years of story-telling, Blackbeard’s stock in trade was stealing what belonged to others—just like today’s modern copyright pirates. That is what makes the story of Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, (QAR) and the film-maker who filmed the wreck and its recovery efforts, so topical—and ironic. It’s a fitting reminder having just marked World Intellectual Property Day, 2016 that vigilance to protect copyright is as important today as vigilance against Blackbeard’s raids was almost 300 years ago. Continue reading “Blackbeard and the Modern Day Pirates”

Knitting, Crocheting and Copyright: Unravelling the Truth



Photo credit: Pixabay.com

Recently a Manitoba based writer, Joanne Seiff, posted an op-ed on CBC (Time to Assess the True Cost of Digital Piracy) commenting on how digital piracy is undermining the delicate economic equation that allows both aspiring and established writers to continue to create new content for the benefit of the consuming public. Joanne has published two books, Fiber Gathering and Knit Green, available on Amazon, on the subject of knitting and textiles. Continue reading “Knitting, Crocheting and Copyright: Unravelling the Truth”

The TPP and Intellectual Property: Tilting at the Wrong Windmill

Don-Quixote-Windmill-e1424097291880(radioopensource.org)Jim Balsillie, former co-CEO and founder of RIM, now Blackberry, has saddled up, mounted his horse and pointed his lance squarely at the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Charge! One of his recent opinion pieces, in Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, is headlined, “For Canadian innovators, will TPP mean protection – or colonialism?” Not content with this coverage, he has taken his message beyond the print media to national radio, reiterating earlier criticisms in which he said that that Canada’s decision to sign the TPP would be the “worst thing in policy that Canada’s ever done” because of provisions hidden in the Intellectual Property (IP) chapter. Balsillie’s criticism was quickly picked up by arch-TPP critic Michael Geist who has made a cottage industry of criticizing the TPP. His creativity knows no bounds; so far he is on his 49th blog as to why the TPP is a bad idea from an intellectual property, privacy, cultural, internet, etc., etc. perspective. When will he make it a nice round 50? One could be forgiven for believing that Prof. Geist subscribes to the “every sparrow that falls” syndrome, used to describe critics of the original Canada-US Free Trade Agreement back in the 1980s. Continue reading “The TPP and Intellectual Property: Tilting at the Wrong Windmill”

A Whale of a (Copyright) Tale: An Update

whaleA few weeks ago I posted a blog about a lawsuit filed by the Vancouver Aquarium against film-maker Gary Charbonneau for copyright infringement. Charbonneau had made a film critical of the Aquarium’s cetacean (whale, porpoise and dolphin) rehabilitation program, in which he had used, without permission, copyrighted material from the Aquarium’s website in his film. The Aquarium sued for damages and sought an injunction compelling Charbonneau to remove the film from his website, and restraining its publication elsewhere, such as on Youtube.  Continue reading “A Whale of a (Copyright) Tale: An Update”

The Costs and Benefits of Copyright: Getting the Facts Straight


Last week I wrote about ‎the exaggerated and wildly inaccurate claims made by opponents of copyright term extension in Canada regarding the supposed economic losses to the Canadian economy of extending the term of protection from 50 to 70 years. Continue reading “The Costs and Benefits of Copyright: Getting the Facts Straight”