Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Comic strip creator tries to 'Grin Big' after losing copyright case

Gary Blehm created a newspaper comic strip titled PENMEN in the 1990s. It was a wordless strip featuring the above stick-figure characters.

Actually, like a lot of cartoonists, the idea for PENMEN came in the 1980s, when Blehm was in high school. PENMEN had reached a level of success before the strip. In the late 1980s, he created a popular poster of the PENMEN.

Here's a 1989 TV interview:

It was the popularity of the poster that lead to the syndication deal with Creators Syndicate.

As Lance Benzel writes in this Colorado Gazette article:

Gary Blehm had it all in the 90s -- a rare syndication deal for his distinctive comic, a best-selling poster, a rewarding side gig speaking to schools. Then, it was all derailed by a rival that he maintains ripped him off from top to bottom. Thing is, the courts sided with the rival -- Life is Good -- and Gary's been left to rebuild his brand while dodging insults online that he's a hack and a ripoff artist.

That rival, the "Life is Good" company, uses a stick figure as well on its t-shirts and caps. 

Blehm's lawsuit, filed in 2009, sought to make the case that coincidence alone couldn't account for similarities between the characters. 
Both Jake and the penmen had "round heads, disproportionately large half-moon smiles, four fingers, large feet, disproportionately long legs, and a message of unbridled optimism. 
Side-by-side comparisons showed that Jake shared the same interests, even using similar body language as he strummed a guitar, caught a Frisbee and warmed himself by a fire, all staples of the "Penmen" universe. 
Blehm's lawyers, from Holland and Hart in Denver, suggested a time and place when Blehm's work had been copied. One of the first stores to start selling the "Penmen" poster was Harvard Coop Bookstore in Boston. During that time, the Jacobs were selling T-shirts from a van a few blocks away, Blehm's lawyers alleged. (The Jacobs maintained they never had heard of Blehm nor seen his poster.) A judge, however, tossed the suit, ruling that while the artists pursued similar ideas, their "execution" was sufficiently different to avoid copyright claims. A federal appeals court reached the same conclusion in 2013, effectively quashing Blehm's legal action. 
"To read the case, they agreed with nearly every point we made," Blehm says. "But they said they couldn't let me have a monopoly on a stick figure. I don't consider it a stick figure."
Legal action has hit a dead end, but Gary Blehm is still drawing, with a new feature he's calling Grin Big. 

1 comment:

John R. Platt said...

Wow, I'd forgotten about "Penmen." I stared at that poster for a lot of hours. Glad he's still at it, but I'm sorry to hear about what he's been through.