With his sunny yellow visage, the Smiley Face has been used on everything from buttons to comic books, video games & movie posters. The story behind the design is a lot less cheerful, with several bitter feuds being fought over the ownership, trademarks & even the bragging rights of who designed it.
How much you know about the yellow Smiley Face logo? Probably as little as I do. Sure, we’ve published related articles on it a few times over the years, but never got into too much detail about the back story. And what a colorful back story it is, full of bitterness, bickering, lawsuits and feuding, all befitting an innocuous logo design that is both a goofy bit of pop culture and yet an extremely valuable piece of logo design real estate. Smiley is one of the big ones, with an estimated 96.5% awareness factor with the 8 to 24 set, and is one of the few licensed brands to have exceeded one billion $USD in sales. The little dude is everywhere, and you probably use a variant almost every day, when you sign an e-mail or smart-ass Twitter comment with a full colon followed by a close bracket. You know, this little fellah : )
You’ve seen variations of the Smiley logo on buttons, movie posters (Watchmen pictured), books (Liberal Fascism pictured) and everything in between. So how did Smiley get his start? That depends on who you talk to.
According to Wiki, the design was created by freelance artist Harvey R. Ball in 1963 as part of an advertising campaign by The State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Massachusetts. It’s also been claimed that Ball designed the happy visage to ‘cheer up’ employees of the firm, upset over a recent company merger. In any case, and according to legend, Ball never copyrighted or trademarked the symbol and it slid into the public domain where it’s been cribbed, mashed and mxed by a multitude of artists and designers for several decades. There’s even a World Smile Organization that commemorates Ball, and celebrates World Smile Day with the Smiley logo as it’s flag. Stamps too. And that’s story number one.
Then there’s Franklin Loufrani, a French journalist who claims he designed Smiley in 1971 (depending on what story you read) to highlight good news in newspaper articles, trademarking it that same year. Loufrani owns the IP rights to Smiley in over 100 countries (not the US) through his licensing company Smiley World and claims the property is one of the most “popular licenses in the world.” That’s story number two. Then there’s another American, Seattle-based advertiser David Stern, also who claims to have invented the image as part of an advertisement campaign for financial services firm Washington Mutual. Like Ball, Stern admits to never copyrighting or trademarking the image, so in his version of events, Smiley ends up in the public domain too, free for everyone to use. And that’s where retail giant Wal-Mart comes in.
Wal-Mart decided to snag the logo for their promotional material some time in 1996 and the Smiley was used heavily in Wal-Mart promotional material, on the back of employee vests and on in-store signage. Public domain remember? Anyone can play. Everything was dandy until 2005 when a Georgia man, Charles Smith decided to launch a parody site, Walocaust, to protest Wal-Mart’s hiring and business practices. As part of the site’s graphics Smith created a logo that incorporated the Smiley Face, held in the talons of a very Nazi-like eagle. Naturally, Wal-Mart weren’t terribly amused, and rattled off several cease & desist letters to Smith, citing trademark infringement (Smith was selling T-Shirts with the emblem) and and claiming trademark ownership of Smiley Face (and the five pointed star, but that’s another matter entirely).
Rather than buckling under the legal pressure, Smith fought back and won under protected speech and parody with the judge ruling that Wal-Mart didn’t even own the trademark rights to Smiley in the first place. Wal-Mart had tried to change that, filing an application with the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), claiming that the Smiley Face was “very closely identified with (their) company” and asking to be recognized as the sole owner of the logo in the US retail sector. Naturally, Smiley World were none-too-pleased about this course of action (ironically, Wal-Mart were selling their stickers and buttons in their store) and filed a protest, pointing out their earlier, and world wide trademarks. Wal-Mart lost on all counts, the Smiley Face was liberated (in the USA anyway) and the retail chain began phasing out the promotional use of the image shortly afterwards.
That’s not the only legal issues around Smiley either. Unbelievably, a Russian businessman by the name of Oleg Teterin managed to register the text version of the smiley emoticon as a trademark for his Superphone cellular phone company. Teterin’s original plan saw him sending emails to companies warning them against using the emoticon and offering the purchase of one-year licensing contracts. The general reaction to this ploy has been along the lines of ‘get bent’ and in 2008, some of the ownership claims – Teterin wanted to trademark “the smile” half of the emoticon (a bracket) – were tossed unceremoniously out of an EU court. Speaking of the emoticon Smiley, any idea when that first hit the scene? On the 19th of September 1982, when Scott E. Fahlman suggested that the full colon, a dash and a close bracket be used as a ‘joke marker’ on the old CMS CU bulletin board.
The smiley face appears on number plates in the US state of Kentucky, has featured on an American postage stamp and was the unofficial symbol of the late 1980s acid house dance music movement. The image was also spoofed in the 1994 movie Forest Gump, in which the title character inadvertently comes up with the logo by rubbing his wet and dirty face on a white T-shirt.
Now that’s some good logo trivia.