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Disney trademarked Loki, the Marvel movie character. Some fans of the Norse god were not happy.

Tom Hiddleston as the God of Mischief in the Disney Plus series “Loki.” (Marvel Studios/Disney Plus)

Can the name of a deity be trademarked?

The easy answer is no.

The question came up recently Redbubble, an Australian online marketplace, removed a user’s artwork because of a potential trademark violation. The artist, known on Twitter as @YourBoswell but referred to as John, uploaded a T-shirt design that closely resembled a 2019 comic book depiction of Loki, Marvel’s version of an ancient and still worshiped Norse god.

The letter @YourBoswell received from Redbubble stated that the site “detected potential similarity between (John’s) removed work and one or more words, phrases, or images in the rights holder’s removal guidance.”

Disney Enterprises is listed as the rights holder.

@YourBoswell shared the Redbubble letter online, and it quickly circulated widely and just as quickly elicited angry responses denouncing the entertainment giant. One Twitter user wrote, “Disney thinks they can copyright someone’s culture now. 21st century colonialism right there.”

Marvel’s Loki wins heathens’ hearts even while losing the Norse immortal’s complexity

Not long afterward, Rebecca Tarn, also known as TikTok user @LessonsfromLoki, launched a petition titled “Stop Disney Trademarking The Names of Norse Gods.”

Supporting the petition was Twitter User @LordAmalthean, who also reported that he was given “copyright strikes” on Redbubble because he looks too much like Loki. “I’m not wearing a licensed costume. It’s my FACE,” he tweeted.

The takedown letters came directly from Redbubble, not Disney, according to a spokesperson for the online site. The spokesperson told Religion News Service, “Redbubble’s proactive screening measures take into consideration available information from rights holders on how to detect unauthorized content in designs uploaded to our marketplace.”

But Redbubble’s circumspection is likely due to Disney’s trademark of “Loki” as well as other Norse deities represented in the Marvel Universe. The first trademark was in 2011, when the original Thor movie was released, and another was in 2013. More recently, Disney trademarked “Marvel Loki.”

These trademarks specifically apply to Disney’s business and commercial works, not the Norse gods in general: Disney can claim only its own interpretation of any god.

“(Disney) could not just trademark the word Loki or any Norse god because they are in the public domain,” said Jeremy A. Briggs, an intellectual property attorney in Marietta, Ga. “(Disney) is trademarking the name in association with the character that they made up.”

It is the adaptation that Disney most likely wants to protect, says Briggs. “Disney is not trying to trademark a god.”

Loki and the Norse gods are not the only deities whose names appear in trademarks. Jesus, Ganesha, Buddha and even God are found in dozens or more trademarks. These names are all in the public domain as Loki is, but the registered trademarks are limited to the companies’ distinct use and were proved to be identifiable with a product or service.

But Briggs described Redbubble as being “hypersensitive” in its decision to take down the content. The company does not want to be “enjoined in a lawsuit,” Briggs suggests.

Redbubble appears not to be alone in this concern. In 2015, eBay denied the Australian artist Markos Gage use of the name Hermes, who is the ancient Greek god of communication, because of possible trademark issues: Hermès is a deep-pocketed French producer of luxury goods. More recently, Etsy has reportedly taken down Loki-related products.

Companies do have a “legal obligation” to protect their trademarks or risk seeing the value of their work diluted, Briggs explained. Disney historically takes this obligation seriously.

But Redbubble’s spokesperson said there is always room for an artist to appeal.

“Sometimes, despite our efforts to avoid it, designs that should not have been removed mistakenly get flagged during the screening process. We always encourage our artist community to send us counter-notices when they think we’ve gotten something wrong, so we can promptly fix it.”

The Loki shirt design that launched the backlash has since been “reinstated.”

— Religion News Service