Well this is a bummer: Chuck Williams‘ sculpt of a Donald Trump troll doll has come under fire from NBC Universal, and the crowd-sourced mass-production is now on hold. The Kickstarter page for The Official World’s Greatest Troll Sculpt By Chuck Williams is currently unavailable. Instead, it shows a copyright notice from NBC stating:
This Kickstarter campaign is and has been infringing DWA [DreamWorks Animation, child company of NBC]’s intellectual property rights, including copyright, in the Trolls Property by offering for sale Trump troll dolls relating to the Trolls Property without license or authorization.
Do you think Williams’ sculpt infringes? Let’s take a look.
On February 10th, sculptor Chuck Williams posted his original sculpt of the Trump troll doll on his Facebook page. On February 12th, he posted painted prototypes and the link to a Kickstarter Campaign offering The Official World’s Greatest Troll Sculpt for $25 a pop. By February 19th, the Kickstarter campaign was funded. As of February 26th, the campaign had reached its midway point and $350,000 in backing–more than nine times its goal. On March 3rd, NBC sent Williams the letter of copyright infringement. On March 9th, Williams “paused” the Kickstarter campaign. That brings us to now.
Chuck Williams created this art piece as a way to release some of the emotional turmoil brought on by the 2016 presidential election. (I admire artists who play with politics. More of that please.) But did Williams, a veteran sculptor with 20+ years experience working for Disney, have an inkling there’d be blowback?
“I sculpted [the Trump toll doll] NSFW to make it clear that I sculpted the entire figure and did not simply sculpt a head on an existing toy body,” Williams told the Huffington Post. “And I wanted to be a bit insulting.” He made similar comments on Facebook, stating: “Yes, he does have a wrinkly ass… Wanted to make sure everyone knew I sculpted the body and didn’t appropriate a pre-existing figure.”
OK, let’s talk about pre-existing conditions. When it comes to licensed product parodies, is there a difference between working with an existing toy and creating a match from scratch? Jason Freeny [interviewed], an artist and toy designer (and old friend) with hundreds of sculpts under his belt, wrote about this distinction:
“All of my hand-made sculpts are one-of-a-kind and are protected under laws as they are art. The anatomies are sculpted inside officially licensed, store-purchased toys which makes it so I am not reproducing or bootlegging the IP. It’s their product, and I am modifying it. Any of the mass produced versions are done with permission and official license from the IP holder.”
The law seems to provide artists with some protections for making one-of-a-kind art pieces. But making mass-production and even limited edition runs (remember Sket One vs. Tabasco?) without permission really risks the wrath of the IP holder.
Production vs. Parody
So did NBC take issue with the Trump troll doll’s mass-production or the parody? Freeny adds:
“The IP holder can still take legal claim on my original sculpts if they feel it has damaged their image. I’ve been doing these for about 10 years, and out of the 100+ anatomy sculpts I’ve done, I’ve had 5 companies ask me to stop, and one had me remove it’s existence entirely from my website even as it still floats around the internet on other sites. One of those companies actually changed their mind, came back and produced a mass-produced version along with me. I respect any company who asks for me to stop and do so without question if they request it. I just don’t tend to publicize it.”
Does the association with Trump damage the Trolls brand? Or, does this particular Trump troll doll, which Williams intended “to be a bit insulting,” damage the Trump brand? (I’m unclear as to whether NBC can still claim ownership of Trump’s IP from his days on The Apprentice now that he’s a public figure. Leave me a note in the comments, if you know.) FYI, not all Trump troll dolls are created equal. For instance, check out these sanitized and POV-free, designed-in-China Trump troll dolls that are all over eBay.
The Name Game
Pop Surrealist Ron English has spent the last few years taking sugar cereals to task with psychedelic, diabetic versions of their mascots. He’s particularly laced into Kellogg’s IP with his KillKidd’s Fat Tony, Cap’n Cornstarch and Smack, Crack and Pot toys. According to FastCompany, English has “spent his career lampooning some of America’s top brands, and he’s got the cease-and-desist letters to prove it.” By now English knows just how far to push his craft (I’m guessing he has lawyers on speed dial), and he stops short of name-checking the IP.
Chuck Williams chose to offer up his Trump troll dolls under a grandiose and narcissistic name. The hyperbole of “The Official World’s Greatest Troll Sculpt” is all part of the joke, but NBC’s copyright lawyers didn’t think it was so funny. I wonder if he could’ve avoided this mess by calling his creation anything other than a “Troll”?
Chuck Williams’ Trump troll dolls Kickstarter campaign would’ve ended on March 15th. Before the Kickstarter page went dark, Williams responded to a donor inquiring as to how he’d be spending the surplus funds: “Taxes, shipping and manufacturing costs add up quickly,” he wrote. “If this takes off, you can rest assured that money will be used to support a much different agenda than DT’s!!!” I hope he gets it going again.
In closing, I guess the bigger you get, the smaller your sense of humor. (I’m short and laugh every day.) As for now, Williams is fighting the good fight with his “top notch legal team.” A Change.org petition, “NBC Universal, stop your copyright action against the Donald Trump Troll Dolls” needs just a few more signatures to accomplish whatever it is that Change.org petitions actually do. Stay tuned.