Alfred E. Neuman has graced (if that's the word) almost every cover of Mad magazine since 1955; a copy of the December 1956 issue (#25), in which the idiot kid apparently gets a name for the first time, resides in my collection. This legendary character is, of course, copyrighted by the owners of Mad, but hidden away in Alfred's history, there's stuff not many people know — mainly, there's Harry Spencer Stuff, who in 1914 copyrighted a very Alfredesque character he called "The Original Optimist", who appeared on a series of postcards. The series was dropped after 1920, but Helen Pratt Stuff, Harry's widow, filed the usual renewal in 1941. And in 1965 Mrs Stuff filed suit against Mad, claiming infringement.

The case somehow wound up in the Supreme Court, where it was established that Stuff had not, in fact, created the image — similar pictures had been found dating back nearly twenty years earlier — and that the Stuffs had not maintained a consistent policy of pursuing infringement claims. Maria Reidelbach, describing the litigation in her book Completely MAD (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1991), explained it this way:

"The nature of copyright law is such that if Mad could prove that the Stuffs had even once failed to protect their copyright of the boy's image, or if Mad could prove that the image existed prior to 1914, the widow's claim would be invalidated."

The killer phrase here is "even once". It explains why Fox and Paramount got so snippy with Buffy and Star Trek fan sites. And it explains this nastygram I got today from Sidley & Austin, a fairly huge (900 attorneys) law firm with a pretty snazzy Web site, asking that I drop the Mazda flying-wing logo and other such stuff from my 626-related pages — "or it may be necessary to advise our client to take appropriate legal action including instituting court proceedings seeking injunctive relief and damages."

It occurs to me that it might be amusing to see them trying to establish the amount of "damages" suffered, but in the absence of an actual case on my part, I pulled the offending material. Regular readers (both of you) will recall that I was whining a couple of weeks ago about still being a small-time net.flunky after all these year; I suppose, now that I've been threatened with an actual lawsuit, I've finally hit the big time. What — me gloat?

The Vent

#233
14 February 2001

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 Copyright © 2001 by Charles G. Hill