Frenchman Fights Wal-Mart for Smiley-Face Rights
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Wal-Mart is causing some frowns over its use of the smiley face. Love it or hate it, the smiley face has become a cultural icon. It's turned up on buttons, T-shirts, and as the unofficial logo for Wal-Mart.
Now, the world's largest retailer wants to lay claim to the smiley face, setting off an intellectual property rights battle.
NPR's Jack Speer reports.
JACK SPEER reporting:
The issue, which pits Wal-Mart against a Frenchman named Franklin Loufrani, is whether something as ubiquitous as a round happy face can be protected. Loufrani claims he invented the smiley face design in the late 1960s and now holds patents in 80 countries.
Norm St. Landau is an adjunct law professor at Cornell.
Professor NORM ST. LANDAU (Professor of Law, Cornell University): Wal-Mart would tell you that it has become so common and is so ubiquitous as to not be protectable. That was one of Wal-Mart's contentions.
SPEER: Wal-Mart has used a slightly askew version of the yellow smiley face on uniforms and marketing materials since 1997, and in seeking to patent its version says it wants to prevent other retailers from using it.
Mr. JOHN SIMLEY (Wal-Mart spokesman): It might seem a little trivial, but the fact is that we have a huge, huge investment in the trademark. And that's something that we need to protect.
SPEER: John Simley is a Wal-Mart spokesman. Wait a minute. John Simley?
If you move the I in your name from in front of the M to the back of the M, what would you get?
Mr. SIMELY: I've been living with that my whole life. It's just a coincidence.
SPEER: Maybe. The Patent and Trade Office is scheduled to rule on the case sometime in the next several months. Meanwhile, there are at least two other individuals out there who say they are the real inventors of the smiley face.
Jack Speer, NPR News, Washington.
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