The big China news recently has been the Shanghai Expo, this year’s answer to the Olympics in China’s never-ending soft power global image push. So far, so good by all accounts.
Among the myriad issues that have arisen surrounding the Expo, which have ranged from the long queues to the expensive, bizarre “pavilions” built by fawning foreign countries, one has captured my attention for obvious reasons: IP infringement of some of the Expo’s signature creations (the Expo theme song and mascot).
The Expo theme song, “2010 Welcomes You,” seems to be a very obvious knockoff, so no need to go into detail on that matter. The Japanese have already graciously allowed the Expo organizers to use the material with no further hassle.
The funky blue “Haibao” mascot is another story entirely.
Ever since Haibao was unveiled, there was talk about its similarity to the American kids tv icon Gumby. The talk dragged on with no resolution (of course), with the Taiwanese designer Wu Yongjian getting quite pissed off in the process, until the issue flared up again at a recent press conference:
Shanghai World Expo Bureau held the press conference on April 23 to help testing Expo news center’s operations. Unexpectedly an American female reporter from National Public Radio in Shanghai, Louisa Lim (Lin Mulian 林慕莲) shouted accusations that World Expo mascot Haibao was plagiarized from an American cartoon icon Gumby. She also produced photos as evidence, the scene suddenly turned chaotic.
Reporters and TV stations all quickly snapped pictures of the female reporter, Expo board propaganda Minster Xu Wei who was sitting on the podium at the time became very awkward because of what was happening. Lousia Lim did not spare Xu Wei, she brought out two pictures and also accused that the style of the Chinese exhibition center building was plagiarized from buildings in Japan. Then she picked up the tape recorder and microphone and rushed to the podium, asking Xu Wei for comments on the two plagiarism incidents. At the same time both Chinese and foreign media swarmed in and surrounded the podium.
Heh. Rather dramatic turn of events for this sort of issue, but China IP is always a hot topic, right?
I understand that this is a cool story, and with all the chatter, I don’t blame the reporter for bringing up the issue at a press conference. The idea that the biggest international event in China since the Olympics is fundamentally flawed by IP infringement is tantalizing, a juicy issue that people have been talking about for months. This is the land of shanzhai, after all, it just fits together so well.
Except that it doesn’t, at least not with respect to Gumby. Again, the theme song is a knockoff, so that fits the narrative quite nicely. But the Haibao-Gumby questions are puzzling, and I’ve yet to see the press coverage of this issue include any opinions of IP experts.
For obvious shanzhai products, like the new iPad clones, the fakes are easy to spot; expert testimony is not really necessary. For other types of fakes, like the forged court verdict recently discovered in Henan, only folks “in the know” can spot the difference.
This brings us back to Haibao and Gumby. The side-by-side pic is above. What do you think about when you see Haibao? Do you think of Gumby? Is it possible that Gumby “inspired” the creation of Haibao? (Personally, I thought of Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of Gumby as an old Jewish entertainer on Saturday Night Live, but that’s me.)
If the answers to one of those last two questions is “yes,” do we then have a case of infringement? The media’s description of this issue suggests that Haibao therefore has an IP infringement problem. I strongly disagree.
Whether Haibao reminds you of Gumby, or even if Haibao was somehow inspired by Gumby makes no difference in a copyright infringement case if the two works in question are not similar. In this case, you can judge for yourself by looking at the picture above.
This may seem moronic, but let’s take a quick detailed look at Haibao and Gumby from a design perspective. This is an idiotic exercise, but if it ever went to court, some poor schmuck of a lawyer would actually have to sit down and write all this stuff down in this manner.
1. Body – Gumby is much more anthropomorphic than Haibao. Gumby has a defined head, body, legs and arms; Haibao is pretty much all head, with arms and legs stuck on. Hard to see infringement from that.
2. Head shape – Gumby and Haibao both have rectangular heads with protuberances on one side. Gumby has a bumpy thing on the left side of his (its?) head that makes it look like he stuck his head outside the window of a high-speed train when he was a baby Gumby and his jell-o skull hadn’t completely solidified. In contrast, Haibao has a very clearly defined spit curl (a la Superman) on the right side. Again, although the overall shape of the head is the same, all we’re talking about is a basic rectangle – hard to see infringement there.
3. Facial features – Gumby has clearly defined eyes, nose, mouth and eyebrows, while Haibao only has eyes and a mouth. Moreover, Haibao’s eyes have centered pupils, while Gumby’s are usually in the lower right or left quadrant of his eyeballs. Gumby’s mouth is usually shown (maybe always) as open, like a semicircle, while Haibao’s mouth is a thin line. Again, with respect to facial features, absolutely no similiarity here.
4. Arms and hands – Gumby’s arms and hands are in rough proportion to each other, and his body; Haibao has thin stick arms with cartoonishly large puffy hands. The only similarity here is that both have hands that are mitten-like as opposed to having articulated fingers.
5. Legs – Gumby has long legs that are maybe 60% of the total length of his body. Haibao’s short stubby legs are maybe 40% of his (its?) total body length. Gumby’s legs are tapered up to his waist, with huge feet, while Haibao’s feet/legs are not tapered.
OK, you get the idea.
To summarize my point: yes, it’s fun to point fingers at the Expo’s theme song as being plaigiarized (it is) and at Haibao as being stolen from Art Clokey, Gumby’s creator (and fellow alumnus of Pomona College – Go Sagehens!). It’s even more entertaining because China is the land of shanzhai, with fake products everywhere you look. But saying something is “fake” or a “knockoff” or a “copy” suggests IP infringement, and there are laws and procedures for determining this sort of thing.
Thus endeth the rant. What do you think?