Triple Threat: Tweety, Barney and Shrek
Photo thanks to Harry McCracken
There was an interesting story in the LA TIMES yesterday about corporations trying to shut down Southern California pinata makers who produce counterfeit (and hilariously off-model) pinatas featuring the likenesses of popular cartoon characters such as The Incredibles, Winnie the Pooh, Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob. The lawsuit was filed against two SoCal pinata makers, or pinateros, by Disney, Sanrio, Cartoon Network, Viacom and Hanna-Barbera. It’s too bad that corporations can’t take the enlightened position of MUCHA LUCHA creators Lili Chin and Eddie Mort, who are always ecstatic when they find unauthorized pinatas and other products related to their show. After all, unauthorized merchandise may be the truest indicator of a show’s success amongst the general public, and the long-term financial benefits of keeping the show in the public eye more than offsets the immediate loss of a few bucks to the private entrepreneurs. Alas, the studios are well within their legal rights to go after these pinata operations, and history teaches us that if a corporation can sue, it will.
UPDATE: Nathan Mazur writes:
I think you may have forgotten to incorporate a key piece of information in your latest post regarding the pinata lawsuits. While it is true that the “long-term financial benefits of keeping the show in the public eye more than offsets the immediate loss of a few bucks to the private entrepreneurs”, as copyright and trademark owners it is their legal responsibility to defend said copyright. There are some horribly gray areas in the U.S. copyright law that would allow “work” to casually slip into public domain unless the copyright is defended.
I figured that many readers may be thinking along similar lines — that if the studios don’t sue, they’re in danger of losing their copyrights to these characters. But though these pinatas are illegal, it’s a fallacy that the studios face any risk of having their work fall into the public domain because of such products. Corporations only frame the discussion in such a manner to mislead people into believing that they had no other option but to sue. Worth checking out is this article, “10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained”. From myth #5: “Copyright is effectively never lost these days, unless explicitly given away.” Another recommended bit of reading is this recent entry at BoingBoing.net. The reader comments in that post are very insightful. It’s worth noting that the pinata situation is clearly different from the cakes being discussed in that piece: those cake decals are drawings made by individuals for personal use; these pinatas are made by an unauthorized third-party for sale to the public. But the discussion of copyrights falling into public domain is applicable to both issues.