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Cartoon CultureIdeas/CommentaryIllustration

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:

  • I have worked with more than one young designer with a book full of “personal projects” that include Star Wars characters drawn in a different art style, beautifully typeset quotes from great thinkers, and the worst of them all: Minimalist movie posters. It’s the kind of stuff with a built-in audience that almost guarantees exposure, and there’s a hefty allure in that. But when it’s time to make original stuff for real clients, these creatives don’t create, they just regurgitate. I can’t be the only one getting sick of this stuff!

    • While I appreciate your sentiment, that’s not the point of this post. I’m neutral about the project itself. I’m only questioning the legality of doing this because it has broad implications for the visual arts community.

      • the Gee

        Does the reason he provides for WHY he is doing it satisfy you?

        Whatever that reason is probably would not seem credible to me.

        The art looks nice and there is a design to it. But, despite his financial success, all that he has really succeeded at creatively is making a clip art collection and finding out people want posters of clip art.

        You know, this is something I could see an artist making and giving out as gifts to people. That totally seems worthwhile. But, trying to profit off of association, there’s a word for that, maybe idea-profiteers, or something.

        Again, the art is purty; the rewards seem boss; if he had an art director on this, I’m sure she/he’d be pleased! But…

  • The only way Warners could succeed is through threats alone, which is sadly more often than not all that’s needed.

    The designs are different enough from the animated originals and are generic enough not to warrant copyright protection (e.g. a book with the ‘Sky Diving’ can hardly be considered to have artistic merit).

    Even the name ‘Acme” itself was a tool used by studios to avoid infringing on the trademarks of real products/companies.

    This guy’s done his homework; more power to him.

    • M. Danby

      This guy’s playing with fire. And quite literally there is more power in Warner Brother$.

  • Maybe pseudo-functioning, photorealistic-style dinosaurs/animals/etc versions of Flintstone tech?

    A caveman merchandise catalog with Alligator lawnmowers, bird record players, etc…

    • Charlie

      Heh. If people made hi-tech items that looked like they were made of rocks and were powered by prehistoric creatures, I would buy them. If someone could make my computer here look like it was in fact carved out of a rock I would be interested…

  • John Doe

    Isn’t this exactly what media companies have done for decades? How many Law & Order episodes are based on real events, but changed just enough to avoid having to pay for the story?

    • M. Danby

      You can’t trademark or copyright facts. Historic events would be facts thus not subject to protection under U.S. intellectual property law.

  • Spencer

    Well, this article doesn’t really help his case, now, does it?

    • If it’s legal, it’s legal, and if it’s not, it’s not. This article doesn’t affect or change laws. It’s only a forum to discuss what’s happening.

      • John

        The problem is that whether or not it is legal is something that often won’t be determined until it goes to court and a judge/jury decides if the “violating” party truly did infringe on copyright/trademark.

        P.S. I’ll lay odds that Warners isn’t the only company with a trademark on the word “acme”.

        • M. Danby

          A more likely legal scenario is WB’s lawyers drafting a very scary letter to him explaining exactly why he would lose easily in court and offering him the option to avoid such action by ceasing to produces these.

      • Ted Herrmann

        well, your article pretty much lays out a strong case for Warners. If they read it, they’d be foolish not to take action.

  • They hold a trademark on that particular font/design of the name “ACME”, and probably registered it around the time this poster was created. This is generic enough to be fair use. No one has a trademark on the word “ACME” itself.

    • James

      I figured as much. The generic word “Acme” was used a lot during golden era Hollywood is several movies as a stand-in for a real company (like Acme moving vans for instance). It would be surprising if WB could possibly trademark the word itself.

      Next we’ll be hearing that WB trademarked “Joe’s” in regards to the cartoons with the common “Eat at Joe’s” gags.

    • Polecat

      Except maybe Acme Supermarkets.

  • Russell H

    I’m not a lawyer, but wouldn’t this fall under the category of “satire” or “parody” and therefore be permissible?

    • Hicks R

      What part of it is satire/parody, though? Looks pretty simple to me.

    • I don’t think so–typically, to be considered “satire/parody” the work has to comment on the original in some meaningful way. That’s why the O.J. Simpson-themed “Cat In The Hat” spoof was deemed infringement in the case of Dr. Seuss Enterprises vs. Penguin Books.

      This is really just a reference to the WB cartoons. It may be fair use, but not satire.

    • Ivan

      Not a lawyer either… If I’m not mistaken “parody” does fall under fair use, but not “satire.”

      • M. Danby

        I really don’t see how you could present this a case of parody. He’s not poking fun of or criticizing WB’s protected works. He’s blatantly appropriating it for his own financial benefit.

        It would be damn near impossible to imagine a situation in which someone used a comics, without significant modification or addition, to parody the original work. If the artist were trying to make a statement about the crass commercialization of WB’s maybe, but clearly here this chap is really only summarizing WBs ideas not modifying them in any meaningful way.

        By the way, there is probably a stronger case to be made for copyright infringement. Trademark protection in the U.S. is not particularly strong, however copyright protection is.

        • Kevin Martinez

          Word to the wise, Danby; Flooding this thread with half-baked analysis won’t make any of it true.

          Even if Warner Bros. did have copyrights on an anvil (once sold in Sears catalogues before the first RR cartoon) or a mass transit bus, what distinguishes this from the myriads of other unofficial merchandise that riff on pop culture, obscure and obvious, and don’t get skewered in CB articles? The guy goes out of his way to obscure the connection between the cartoons and the poster.

          You guys really have it in for this guy, don’t you?

  • tim

    How does this differ from the Mondo posters advertised on “the brew” earlier? Asking out of curiosity, cause I am not sure how they can make Looney Tunes / Star Wars / E.T. etc. “posters” of the same properties for profit……..anyone know the difference and/or how they can legally sell?

    • BT

      Mondo’s posters are all officially licensed.

  • Andrew

    I am not a lawyer, but have some professional experience dealing with issues like this and I think Amid is quite right, Loukotka is walking a legal tightrope. It’s important to remember that there is no automatic right to fair use (a common misconception), under U.S. law it’s an affirmative defense that can be used when/if you’re sued. You have to prove it in court, which of course is expensive and unfortunately why so many people fold under the threat of being sued by a large corporation.

    This is definitely an interesting case since it seems to me that it potentially – but not clearly – fails three of the four standard tests for fair use (purpose and character, amount and substantiality, and effect upon work’s value) since it’s a commercial, for-profit venture that wouldn’t have much popularity were it not for the implied connection to Looney Tunes.

    It’s probably a toss-up as to what a court would do with it. I suspect the outcome would likely depend heavily on the judge assigned to it and how he or she chose to interpret the existing case law.

    But then again, I’m not a lawyer.

  • Kevin Martinez

    Thad’s right; the guy isn’t even using the trademarked font design, let alone any actual art or trademarks or anything that might actually be objectionable.

    Why this guy specifically? Because his Kickstarter was successful? Are Seth MacFarlane and John Textor not doing anything to oppress innocent animators at the moment?

  • Charlie

    “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.”

    I don’t know about that. I look at his past projects and they don’t interest me (particularly not the photos) but this poster here does appeal to me even as someone who has no great familiarity with the show/source – it’s a picture I wouldn’t mind having on my wall. For me personally it’s interesting in the same way those old comic book ads are interesting, with the page full of all the different prizes on offer. I don’t think it’s so entirely dependent on the Warner Bros. connection then. Plus, one of his last projects was not purely original, he had a Lord of the Rings print, and yet that, as you note, made less than $5,000. What sense does it make then to say the $70,000 here was all due to the licensed property connection?

    And I don’t know the ins-and-outs of copyrights and whatnot, but to the ‘Acme’ trademark question, there are definitely people out there using this name that aren’t Warners. Chris Ware, for one, comes to mind.

  • Pedro Nakama

    “He is mass producing merchandise based on a corporation’s intellectual property.”

    I believe Chuck Jones picked Acme because in the animation industry everything is(or was) Acme. Acme punch on the paper. Acme pegs on the light box. Even Acme cameras and optical printers. There are still companies around in the Hollywood are called Acme.

    Warner Brothers really doesn’t have a case here.

    • M. Danby

      Chuck had this to say on the origin of the use of Acme:

      “We were little madcaps along the beach and we did what we enjoyed doing and could get dirty and could eat hot dogs and so on. Since we had to search out our own entertainment, we devised our own fairy stories. If you wanted a bow and arrow you got a stick. If you wanted to conduct an orchestra you got a stick. If you wanted a duel you used a stick. You couldn’t go and buy one; that’s where the terms acme came from. Whenever we played a game where we had a grocery store or something we called it the ACME corporation. Why? Because in the yellow pages if you looked, say, under drugstores, you’d find the first one would be Acme Drugs. Why? Because “AC” was about as high as you could go; it means the best; the superlative.”


    • dbenson

      I recall a Jones quote to the effect that in his youth, there were dozens of Acme businesses because they wanted to be at the front of the phone book.

  • Sean

    Seems like an over-reaction. At the end of the day, $70,000 is pocket change for a behemoth like WB (And definitely not worth pursuing legal action), so who cares? It’s obviously a tribute and its not like he is taking food out of the mouth of Chuck Jones’ estate or anything. I really doubt this threatens WB’s ownership of the Looney Tune’s trademarks.

    • M. Danby

      Perhaps, but then again where do you draw the line?

  • Mel

    Chuck Jones once said that he started using the name “Acme” because it was all around him – Acme pegs, Acme animation cameras, etc. Whether this was true, a faulty memory or just interview embellishment, who can say?

    • M. Danby

      I’m curious where you found this quote. I ask not to be rude but only out of a geeky curiosity. I’ve seen him attribute the name to something else entirely. The source of the quote I’m referring to came late in his life and at a time when his memory could well have faded.

  • Richard

    Acme is just a word. It’s a word used to name things for decades and its generic quality is one of the things that drew the Looney Tunes’ creators to it in the first place.

    I even attended Acme Elementary school as a tad. This is not a thing. He’s close, but there is no exploding cigar for Warner to use against him.

  • It looks like WB’s trademark is for that particular logo used on clothing. The Acme joke was that the Coyote went with the first company that he found in the phone book. Companies would name themselves Acme for this very reason. It wasn’t supposed to be one factory that made everything under the sun.

  • ShouldBeWorkin”

    While I agree artists should be original, I’m less a fan of broadcasting negative attention to his work and potentially facilitate legal hassles for the guy.
    It would be the kind of question I would have for a fellow artist in a private Email; not call him out in a publication.
    Look, If he is justly in fair use territory, legal fees to argue that would be crippling.
    Why be a tattle-tale and birddog for corporate lawyers?

    • ShouldBeWorkin”

      I have a bigger moral issue with potentially creating financial stress to an artist than whatever “damage” a print that utilizes cartoon iconography; pop cultural touchstone like Acme in cartoons may have on multi billion dollar corporation run by stewards who had nothing to do with the creation of the cartoons, which are referenced in the print.

      • Charlie

        [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “It is OK to post with a nickname or alias, but your email address (which we will NEVER share publicly), must be a real, permanent email address. Comments with fake or non-permanent emails will be deleted.”]

  • Polecat

    It’s interesting how the article says that Loukotka is careful not to mention the Coyote and Roadrunner in his poster, but if you look very closely, you can see a realistic coyote and a realistic roadrunner underneath the word Acme.

  • Jeff Kurtti

    What would be great is to see Warner Bros. embrace the idea and, based on this success, bring him on board for some “official” product.

  • Mr. James

    “The project wouldn’t be as noteworthy if not for how successful it’s been…”

    Amid, I find your statement to be a bit judgmental in its analysis of the project. Would it be more creative or noteworthy had he only made $25,000? Would it have been more creative if he had made something based on a different character that you find less iconic? Maybe every tool/weapon Batman had ever used? What if the artist had used a character that wasn’t owned by a large corporation? Would that have made it more noteworthy?

    It seems that your entire argument and basis on starting this story was to bash ANOTHER Kickstarter project for being successful. Odd and also slightly obsessive in your negative opinion of the site itself. It’s a great tool to get creative personal projects off the ground. It’s not his fault he found something that was appealing to the masses. He unexpectedly found that sweet spot and he’s going to reap the benefits.

    Kudos for him.

    • bigbadballon

      The facts are there.
      Using his own personal works he didn’t get above $5000.

      Using the concepts and works of someone else, he gained over $70,000. How is that judgemental? That’s factual.

      Amid isn’t bashing the KS because it was successful but because of WHY it was successful.

      Good lesson.

      “Hey Kids! Can’t make your own personal projects successful? Tweak someone else’s ideas! Dat’s da ticket!”

  • Tom

    This all brings to mind the very funny Ian Frazier legalese piece, “Coyote v. Acme”:

    • Polecat

      I remembered seeing that title in a bookstore as a kid but never actually got to read it. Thanks, Tom!

  • dbenson

    Other not-quite-infringements:
    — Much of the Davy Crockett merchandise that came out in the wake of Disney’s TV shows. Disney bluffed with some lawyer letters, but had to settle for whatever power “Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett” and photos of Fess Parker imparted.
    — Bat-themed products in the 60s. Most tried to evoke the bat-logo or costume, but Frito’s bat-ring premium was decorated with a little Halloween-prop bat.
    — The products and shows that used the word “Bionic” during the glory days of “The Six Million Dollar Man”
    — Adaptations of the “Oz” books that seemed to be based more on the MGM musical (particularly with Bert Lahr-ish lions). Stand by for revisionist Oz epics that at least nod to “Wicked”
    — “The Best of Marcel Marceao”, a record consisting of 19 minutes of silence with applause at the end. The mime Marcel Marceau sued, but the deliberately misspelled name evidently protected the gag LP.

    • the Gee

      That last one is pretty clever.

  • AC

    I’ve seen quite a few videogame kickstarters too.

    Not to mention t-shirts being sold. I dunno, I like pushing my original characters (although I’m not popular so not a lot of people follow them yet) but it seems fanart overshadows everything on the web. :-/

    • bigbadballon

      I agree about the fanart making bank and I’m sick of it. People always complain that Hollywood won’t come up with new ideas but why do they need to when they can just use crap like that link you offered.
      “Make a new idea, Hollywood!”
      Well that would be easier if people would actually fun and support new ideas.

  • Hey, you guys here at Cartoon Brew have a big responsibility. You are journalists. You report the news of the animation industry to us artists. You are in a very powerful position.
    if you would like to branch out to the realm of investigative journalism that’s great, but investigative journalism means just that, that you investigate a story before you write about it. The fact that you had to post that Warner Bros. owns the trademark to Acme in an update shows that you did not investigate this story thouroughly before posting it.
    Most of the time you guys do a great job, and I appreciate your site, but being the primary news source for the animation industry I must ask that you always keep in mind your duties as a journalist. To report the unbiast truth.

    • Elana, There is nothing incorrect in this post. WB does indeed hold MULTIPLE trademarks on the word and logos related to ACME. Neither you nor I are qualified to evaluate what those mean in the context of this Kickstarter, but acknowledging their existence is perfectly valid.

      The point of this post wasn’t “investigative journalism” because that’s not what we do. This post simply asks the question: Is this project legal or does it infringe on someone else’s intellectual property? The project is an interesting test case from a legal standpoint and it has broad implications for the visual arts community, which is why I commented on it.

      • Matt Stephens

        A search under “Acme” with the added keyword “warner” actually found several dead trademarks and two related live one, but those two have no relation to the animated series or any related licneced projects,goods or services.

        That trademark linked above in the article update, which actually only covered use under the classification of clothing – Trademarks must be filed for each type of product and service – which is why other parties can use and trademark the ACME name (such as the East Coast Supermarket Chain) is showing as cancled/expired from the U.S. Trademark database and is no longer vaild.

        The other trademarks fall into other catagories that Warners filed and were abandoned or expired
        (ABANDONED) IC 041. US 100 101 107. G & S: Providing general interest news, entertainment, and educational information via a global computer network
        These two were for an “Acme City” project – one’s for bthe name,other the logo
        (CANCELLED) IC 035. US 100 101 102. G & S: promoting the computer services and the goods and services of others (excluding retail grocery stores and pharmacies) by means of advertising and on-line banners on a global computer network. FIRST USE: 19981211. FIRST USE IN COMMERCE: 19981211
        (CANCELLED) IC 041. US 100 101 107. G & S: providing a wide range of information and computer graphic images in the field of entertainment relating specifically to movies, television series and music. FIRST USE: 19981211. FIRST USE IN COMMERCE: 19981211
        (CANCELLED) IC 042. US 100 101. G & S: computer services, namely, creating, maintaining and hosting the web sites and personal home pages of others which contain a wide variety of information on a global computer network. FIRST USE: 19981211. FIRST USE IN COMMERCE: 19981211
        This one is for the “Acme Television” name – which Warners would have used to name their station group of owned tv stations.
        for an “Acme toy Company” project – most likely they would have had their toy licnecors use it as a branding name.
        (ABANDONED) IC 009. US 021 023 026 036 038. G & S: motion picture and television films; prerecorded goods, namely prerecorded records and prerecorded audio and audio-video tapes, cassettes and discs, stereo headphones; batteries; cordless telephones; hand-held calculators; audio cassette and CD players; hand-held karoke players; pagers, film clips within cassettes used with hand-held viewers or projectors; audio, video, audio and video tape, cassette, disc playback and recording devices; radio; eyeglasses, sunglasses and cases therefor
        (ABANDONED) IC 025. US 022 039. G & S: clothing for men, women, and children, namely shirts, T-shirts, sweatshirts, jogging outfits, trousers, jeans, shorts, tank tops, rainwear, bibs, skirts, blouses, dresses, suspenders, sweaters, jackets, coats, raincoats, snow suits, ties, robes, hats, caps, sunvisors, belts, scarves, sleepwear, pajamas, lingerie, underwear, boots, shoes, sneakers, sandals, booties, slipper socks, swimwear, and costumes comprised of body suits and face mask
        (ABANDONED) IC 028. US 022 023 038 050. G & S: toys and sporting goods, including games and playthings, namely action figures and accessories therefor; plush toys; balloons; bathtub toys; ride-on toys; card game equipment; toy vehicles; dolls; flying discs; electronic hand held game unit; game equipment sold as a unit for playing a board game, a card game, a manipulative game, a parlour game, a parlour-type computer game, an action type target game; game cartridges; video and computer game programs, cartridges, and cassettes; video output game machines; puzzles; paper face masks; costume; costume mask; skateboards; ice skates; water-squirting toys; balls, namely playground balls, soccerballs, sportballs, baseballs, basketballs; baseball gloves; swimming floats for recreational use; kickboard flotation devices; surfboards; swim boards for recreational use; swim fins; Christmas tree ornaments; toys and sporting goods, including games and playthings, namely action figures and accessories therefor; toy bakeware and cookware; balloons; toy banks, bath toys; bathtub toys, inflatable bath toys; ride-on toys; inflatable ride-on toys; card game equipment; gaming equipment, namely chips and dice; toy vehicles; dolls, beanbag dolls, paper dolls, rag dolls, soft sculpture dolls; dolls’ accessories and playsets therefor, including doll cases, doll clothing, doll house furnishings; doll costumes; checker sets; chess sets; children’s play cosmetics; child’s multiple activity toy; computer game equipment sold as a unit for playing a parlour type game; computer game equipment containing memory devices, namely discs, computer games, tapes; toy construction blocks; infants’ action crib toys; flying discs; electronic hand held game unit; electronic game equipment with a watch function. electronically operated toy motor vehicles; game equipment sold as a unit for playing a board game, a card game, a manipulative game, a parlour game, a parlour-type computer game, an action type target game; game cartridges; video output game machines(coin or non-coin operated); rocking horses; kites; puzzles; paper face masks; toy model train sets; toy model vehicles and related accessories sold as a unit; electronically operated toy motor vehicles; toy trick noisemakers; party favors in the nature of small toys; top cap pistols; plush toys; soft sculpture plush toys; three dimensional (cube type) puzzles; three dimensional manipulative puzzles; toy record player for playing tunes and cassettes therefor; skateboards; ice skates; water-squirting toys; teddy bears; wind up walking toys; wind up toys; non-riding transportation toys, namely toy wagons; toy trucks; twirling batons; and zip guns; balls, namely playground balls, soccerballs, sportballs, baseballs, basketballs; baseball gloves; swimming floats for recreational use; headcovers for golf clubs; inflatable swimming pools for recreational use; kickboard flotation devices; gymnastic parallel bars; skis; snow skis; ski boots; ski boot bags; skipping ropes; jump ropes; snow sleds for recreational use; surf fins; surfboards; swim boards for recreational use; swim fins; Christmas tree ornaments

        The Only two active trademarks coming up under the combination of “Acme” and “Warner” is for Services of transmitting and broadcasting via television, satellite and cable (A possible network name.perhaps held in reserve?) Both as “Acme” and “Acme Communications”.

        So THERE IS NOT an active Warners trademark on the name relating to the cartoons or for licnecing of posters and related goods,and I’m surprised at the falure of them for not tradmarking at minimum “Acme,inc” for various possible licensing uses.

        But the point is moot, as this is clearly a parody/fair use – same thing MAD MAGAZINE has been doing for 55+ Years. How many Trademarks, Copyright and IP have been parodied in those years – THOUSANDS.

    • bigbadballon

      They did a great job here too. They are raising a question of legality. It’s not the Brew’s job to PROVE anything. That’s the job of the lawyers.

    • Herb Finn

      A Search of the U.S. Trademark office datebase shows NO active Trademark of the ACME name by Warner Brothers! in fact, there’s no record of any “dead” ACME trademarks registered to Warner Brothers either!

  • There have been “homage” projects even less direct and more disconnected than this one that received cease-and-desists. And for every one of them, there have been dozens of far more blatant and high profile projects that have been ignored, sometimes even willfully.

    Fair use vs. IP violation is interesting to discuss intellectually, and important to personally consider when you are trying to decide what you as an artist feel is acceptable morally. But really… if the artist gets a CoD, they stop selling. Period. Whether or not any actual IP violations occurred is totally irrelevant unless the dispute is between two entities wealthy enough to fight. Everyone else capitulates to the demands, be they legitimate complaints or just opportunistic bullying. And it may be either.

    • Kevin Martinez

      Thank you, Sam, for not joining the lynch mob, and actually offering a cogent opinion