Lots of Muppet fans like to make their own Muppets as a hobby and many talented puppet builders got started building their very own Kermit the Frog. While there’s nothing wrong with doing that for yourself, unfortunately there’s a booming and very profitable trade in film and T.V. prop replicas on the internet and a small number of replica builders will build you a Muppet character for several hundred dollars. I did a quick ebay search and just today found auctions for replicas of Grover, Ernie, Count, and Beaker, all by the same ebay user and all with starting bids of over $400.
Granted, some people who do this kind of thing may be totally ignorant of or misinformed about copyright law and others may operate in jurisdictions where there is little or no copyright law or enforcement (Israel and Mexico come to mind), but most of these builders are simply making a buck with someone else’s intellectual property. What’s really interesting to note is that at least one or two of the Muppet replica builders are actually former employees of the Henson Company.
Debating this issue with said people is a little bit like trying to argue with the sun. They’ll say what they are doing constitutes “fair use” (it doesn’t). They’ll claim it’s O.K. because companies like the Muppets already have lots of money and don’t care. Or they’ll use what I call the “drug dealer defense” and say that they are simply filling a legitimate need in the marketplace. Finally, they’ll tell you to shut up because it’s not your business and why should you care anyway?
I suppose it’s not my business and I don’t really care, but I thought it was interesting to read today that a U.K. outfit called Shepperton Design Studios just got nailed for $20 million dollars in damages by Lucasfilm for selling replicas of Star Wars props in California (Lucas is pursuing a similar case against the company in England). Note in the article how Lucasfilm makes a distinction between fans who simply want to build replicas as a hobby and those who profit from using the company’s copyrights and trademarks without authorization.
A cautionary tale I suppose.
02/11/08 Update: It took a surprisingly long time, but Muppet Studios has initiated a lawsuit against a group of alleged replica builders.