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Cartoon Culture

How To Earn $70,000 From Looney Tunes Cartoons And Not Pay Warner Bros. A Cent [Updated]

Illustrator Rob Loukotka’s ACME Corporation Kickstarter project is worth writing about for many reasons besides the fact that he’s trying to raise money. Here’s what it is: a poster of every Acme Co. item used by Wile E. Coyote in his futile pursuit of the Roadrunner. There are 126 items represented on the poster from the 43 Coyote and Roadrunner shorts that director Chuck Jones was personally involved with between 1949 and 1994.

The project wouldn’t be as noteworthy if not for how successful it’s been. Loukotka has currently sold over 2000 posters for nearly $70,000, and there are still five days left in the campaign. He is careful not to mention the Roadrunner, the Coyote, Warner Bros. or any of the cartoons in his poster. He also benefits from the fact that most of Acme products in the Chuck Jones cartoons are quite generic.

Nevertheless, Loukotka is walking a legal tightrope. He is mass producing merchandise based on a corporation’s intellectual property. If this was just a collection of random items with the name Acme on them, no one would ever buy the poster. It’s only because of the role these invented Acme items have played within a series of animated shorts that they are recognizable and of interest to the general public.

People also aren’t buying the posters because Loukotka is a popular artist. Case in point: Loukotka’s two previous campaigns on Kickstarter, which were prints based on original ideas, raised less than $5,000 each. His success with this campaign is almost entirely due to his unofficial partnership with Warner Bros.

Who knows what may happen. Corporations have been known to pursue copyright infringement cases even when characters aren’t involved. For example, Lucasfilm filed a lawsuit against British entrepreneur Andrew Ainsworth, who was selling replicas of Star Wars helmets. The company won a $20 million summary judgment against Ainsworth in U.S. courts.

I’m not a lawyer and can’t pretend to know all the legal arguments for and against such a poster. But I do find the project fascinating, especially the fact that it passed through Kickstarter’s legal vetting process. It begs the question, What other types of unofficial cartoon-related projects can be done in this manner without running afoul of copyright laws?

[UPDATE]: Further research reveals that Warner Bros. does indeed hold a trademark on the name “Acme”.

Illustrator Rob Loukotka has offered a response on Twitter saying that he believes the project is protected by fair use law: