Can A Lax Approach to Copyright Actually Be a Benefit?

Most of the stories covered on this blog feature one company coming down hard on some business or individual for infringing upon their intellectual property rights, because that’s how most IP stories go. The actions taken within those stories makes sense in a way befitting early-21st century capitalism, which is to say that big, wealthy companies take an absolutist view of ownership, without much wiggle room. What this particular blog presupposes is, what if they didn’t?

You’ve probably seen Minions pop up on your social media feeds recently, if not for the handsome sum it raked in at the box office, then for the GentleMinions trend it inspired among the TikTok generation. Lost underneath those more attention-grabbing stories is a more compelling one about how Minions managed to become so popular as to inspire memes and drive kids to the movies with parents in tow—by not being overly concerned with copyright infringement.

Zack Kotser at Polygon has the breakdown of how Universal, the parent company of Illumination Studios and thus the “pater genitor” of the Minions they birthed, has managed to build a following for their roly-poly money machines by taking the opposite approach from Disney, long notorious for cracking down on anything that resembles infringement. Rather than trying to crack down on every Minions meme or every unlicensed product or image that may exist in the interest of selling more of their own official Minions products, Universal seems to have taken the long view: the can write off each airbrushed Minions t-shirt as an advertisement for the brand, growing the audience for future movies, shows or whatever (while still selling a healthy amount of licensed merch, to be clear.)

It’s an intriguing tactic, and one I’ve always thought that other big corporations should at least consider on a smaller scale. Disney doesn’t want an entire black market of off-brand Mickey merchandise, but what is the sense in coming down on some of their most dedicated fans who have perhaps exceeded the bounds of what’s allowed by the strictest interpretation of IP law in their zeal? It’s not for me to tell Disney or others how to run their multi-billion dollar businesses, but it seems like it’s worth considering.