Apart from being a sweet little rabbit, Miffy is also big bucks. There are plenty of people who would love to cash in on the commercial success. Dutch publisher Mercis has been jealously guarding the copyright on Miffy and her friends since 1971 – if need be, with the gloves off.
“Illustration removed at the request of lawyers representing Mercis BV.” The internet is full of spaces vacated by Miffy pictures. Mercis is notoriously tough when it comes to protecting the copyright on Dick Bruna’s cross-nosed rabbit.
[media:image1]“Big companies like Mercis intimidate private individuals,” says Henkjan de Krijger of domain administrator Punt.nl. Mercis took the Amsterdam company to court for posting a parody of Miffy. But the judge largely sided with Punt.nl. An appeal is pending.
Art director Mahmoud Abdou, one of the people behind the Arabic version of Miffy, agrees that Mercis takes its job as Miffy’s bodyguard seriously. “It sets very strict conditions, both for the images and the copyright payments.”
Mercis plays down its litigious reputation. “It’s not a hobby of ours,” says Mercis spokeswoman Marja Kerkhof. “In the past ten years, all in all we’ve filed three court cases.” Mercis won the first of them easily.
The second, against Japanese company Sanrio (“we’re David against Goliath,” says Ms Kerkhof) was recently settled out of court. Miffy and Kathy, Hello Kitty’s Miffy-lookalike friend, agreed that the legal costs could be better spent helping victims of the Japanese earthquake. The third court case is against Punt.nl.
[media:image2]“A lot of individuals can’t or daren’t let it get as far as a court case,” argues Henkjan de Krijger. “A teenager who gets a strongly-worded letter from a lawyer gets the shock of his life. But unlike many private individuals, as a company we can take on a case like this.” Even the Dutch shock blog GeenStijl – not renowned for its scruples – hurriedly took down a picture of a fake Miffy snorting cocaine, in response to a tough-talking letter from Mercis.
“It’s true we’re very alert to it,” says Marja Kerkhof of Mercis. “We have to be. Miffy is a very accessible figure that people can easily copy.” She stresses that cases where commercial interests are at stake (as with the Japanese firm Sanrio) are fundamentally different from conflicts about parodies of Miffy. “With parodies it’s about the limits of freedom of expression.”
The cat and the rabbit
Illustrator Dick Bruna and Mercis insist that their main issue is “respect for the world of the child”. This is why they object so much to parodies they see as harmful to Miffy’s child-friendly image. Miffy taking drugs, Miffy having sex with a pig, Miffy as Hitler, Miffy in a plane heading for the twin towers. It all provides plenty of work for the legal eagles at Mercis.
Yet notably there’s never been a court case between Mercis and ER Productions, worldwide distributor of films and toys featuring the Belgian cat Musti. The cat and the rabbit have been quarrelling for years over which of them came first. Miffy was officially born in 1955, Musti in 1969. But Musti’s creator Ray Goossens has always said he first drew the figure back in the 1940s, says ER productions.
ER Productions is currently negotiating a licence to distribute Musti dolls across the border in the Netherlands, birthplace of Miffy. So at last the cat and the rabbit will be able to play together nicely. Or scratch each other’s eyes out.
Copyright notice: Top photo © Rechtspraak.nl/Herman Roggeveen/ER Productions