CORPORATE FOCUS: Stealing Skippy
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We'll say a word, and you tell us the first thing that comes to mind.Ready?Skippy.Yes, we have tried this on other people, and yes they agree with you: peanut butter.Skippy peanut butter. Made by the New Jersey corporate giant, Bestfoods. The same people who bring you Hellman's mayonnaise, Entenmann's baked goods, Mueller's pasta, Mazola corn oil, and Thomas' english muffins.Now, if you are older, there is a chance you will remember a comic strip character named Skippy. Skippy was the creation of Percy Crosby.Through Skippy and his other characters, Crosby lampooned politicians and crusaded against corporate crime, Al Capone, the Ku Klux Klan, and for civil rights, child labor laws and freedom of the press.In the early 1920s, Life magazine began running the Skippy strip, and Skippy was syndicated in newspapers worldwide from 1926 to 1945. Crosby became a wealthy man. In 1925, he obtained a federal trademark registration for Skippy.Enter Rosefield Packing Co,. which in 1933 began selling Skippy peanut butter, without getting permission from Crosby. On the peanut butter label, Rosefield used the same Skippy lettering, picket fence, and paint bucket made famous by Crosby in his comic strip. Rosefield was later bought out by the Corn Products Corporation (CPC, Inc.) which changed its name in 1997 to Bestfoods.Percy Crosby's daughter Joan Crosby Tibbetts believes that her father was wronged by Bestfoods and her predecessors and she is determined to tell her father's story to the world. Earlier this year, she put up a web site ( www.skippy.com, also at www.rjriley.com/skippy) detailing her father's fight with the powers that be.Last week, Bestfoods asked a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia to order Tibbetts to take down large sections of that web site.What doesn't Bestfoods like about the web site?Here's one example:The web site claims that the Skippy trademark was "pirated by a bankrupt peanut butter company, which later merged with a Fortune 500 company, making a fortune in illicit sales under the Skippy brand name."Bestfoods wants Tibbetts and Skippy, Inc., her Annandale, Virginia-based company, to be held in contempt of court for violating a 1986 court order prohibiting them from "communicating in any manner with anyone that ... CPC has no rights in the Skippy trademark in connection with [food] products."Crosby went from millionaire comic strip author to being institutionalized for the last 16 years of his life. On the web site, Tibbetts argues that her father's downfall was the result of ongoing battles with CPC over control of Skippy.Bestfoods is being represented in the case by W. Mack Webner, a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Sughrue, Mion, Zinn, MacPeak and Seas.Webner did not return calls seeking comment.According to the Bestfoods motion filed in federal court, Bestfoods asked Tibbetts earlier this month to "modify" her web site "to withdraw these false allegations." She refused.Tibbetts argues that her father's 1925 trademark applied to the word Skippy "howsoever written."But Gale Griffin, a spokesperson for Bestfoods, says that Crosby's trademark covered Skippy as a "title of cartoons depicting a humorous juvenille character -- that was what that was for, it was not for food.""Rosefield determined that no one was using the mark for food products and there were at that time no trademark registrations for Skippy for food products," Griffin said.But Tibbetts points out the current general counsel for Bestfoods, Hanes Heller, admitted in a 1977 internal company memo that "from a historical point of view, as opposed to a legal point of view, it would appear that at various times in the past we did 'plagiarize' in our labeling some of the Skippy comic concepts, notably the little boy and the fence."In 1977, Bestfoods did pay Tibbetts and Skippy Inc. $25,000 to resolve the dispute.Ron Riley, an activist who defends inventors, sees this as chump change."Twenty-five thousand dollars is not reasonable compensation for a trademark of the stature that Skippy had in that time frame, especially when one looks at the time value of money," Riley said. "They litigated her into the ground. This is a similar kind of abuse that we see in the inventor community all the time, where big companies steal the inventor's work.""I have my hands full with the patent arena," Riley said. "But the story here is the same. You have this huge company jumping all over this mid-60s widow. I don't like it. This type of hardball litigation by a big corporation against an individual is out of line. It is the schoolyard bully mentality."Percy Crosby created a comic strip character who was known throughout the world. Now, when you say Skippy, people think peanut butter. How did this happen?Check out the web site, before it is too late.Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org).