Designing Around Trademark Restrictions

wouldbe spongebob.jpgCan a bunch of birthday cake-smeared five-year-olds distinguish between the “real” SpongeBob SquarePants and a convincing lookalike, say, AbsorBert AngularTrousers? Probably not, but intellectual property lawyers can, and that’s a real problem for parents seeking favorite—and trademark-protected—cartoon characters to entertain at their children’s birthday parties. The Wall Street Journal devoted yesterday’s A-Hed to the story, focusing on the costume industry’s strategies to avoid lawsuits.

“I try to make my costumes look 40% different,” Florida costume company owner Leslie Ann Hooker told the WSJ. “I don’t have SpongeBob. I have SquishyGuy.” Alas, Hooker recently threw in the towel (we’re betting it was yellow and affixed with giant googly eyes). Fearful of lawsuits, she renamed her company and is now exclusively focused on marketing “her self-created band of environmentally conscious super heroes.” Other companies are hanging in there, but capturing the essence of a trademarked character with a homemade costume is not easy:

Miriam Sorkin, an office manager in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., threw a fourth-birthday party for her daughter in May and arranged for a costumed impersonator of Dora the Explorer. Though the walk-about “Dora” had the expected pageboy haircut and backpack, her expression was blank and her legs appeared out of proportion to the rest of her body. “When Dora came out,” Mrs. Sorkin says, “none of the kids would go to Dora, including my daughter, and a few of the kids started crying.”

So add traumatizing young children and ruining birthday parties to the myriad costs of violating intellectual property laws! We hear these sorts of teary episodes of pain and suffering are also common when people receive fake Louis Vuitton handbags as gifts from loved ones, or at least that’s what Bernard Arnault told us.