A copyright dispute between the Philadelphia Phillies and the designers of the team’s Phillie Phanatic mascot could lead to a major blow to popular culture in the City of Brotherly Love: The designers have threatened to “make the Phanatic a free agent,” the Phillies say in a lawsuit filed today in the Southern District of New York.
At issue is the Phanatic’s provenance. The Phillies say in their suit that the mascot was basically their idea and that Bonnie Erickson and Wayde Harrison‘s firm Harrison/Erickson just executed it: “He would be green, fat, furry, big-nosed, and instantly recognizable to children,” the action reads. Erickson seemed to remember the interaction a bit differently in an interview with Smithsonian magazine in 2008: “We’d heard from the Phillies that their crowd had booed the Easter bunny, so it was a challenge to come up with something that was not going to talk down to their audience,” she said.
Erickson and Harrison are legendary in the field of lovable-character creation. Erickson was the head of Muppet design for Jim Henson Associates and created Miss Piggy and Statler and Waldorf. She also “oversaw the build” of Fraggle Rock, she said in a 2015 interview.
The team contends that, although it declined to purchase the copyright to the character for $1,300 at the time of its creation and that the parties renegotiated the team’s use of the mascot over the years, it has “devoted millions of dollars to developing and promoting the Phanatic.” It also contends that Harrison/Erickson should not have been able to register the Phanatic with the US Copyright Office as an “artistic sculpture” and includes a photo of the mascot costume’s unoccupied component parts:
The Phanatic lawsuit includes this disturbing photo of the costume with no one in it pic.twitter.com/yyRtIefhLs
— Andrew Beaujon (@abeaujon) August 2, 2019
If Harrison/Erickson were allowed to transfer the Phanatic to another entity, the Phillies contend, “it would likely cause confusion, mistake, or deception…in that consumers are likely to believe that the Club is related to other sports teams or commercial entities, or that the Club is associated with or related to other sports teams or commercial entities using the Phillie Phanatic.”
While rare, it’s not unheard of mascots to retire, or to move from one team to another, like Youppi!, the Montreal Expos’ mascot, who went over to the Montreal Canadiens when the Expos moved to Washington, DC, and became the Washington Nationals. (Harrison/Erickson also created Youppi!.)
While this dispute plays out in the courts, would it not behoove Washington, DC, to make a play for the Phanatic in case this suit doesn’t go the Phillies’ way? After all, the teams have what’s developed into a pretty good rivalry, which seemed to peak when the Phillies signed Bryce Harper. (LOL.) Bringing the Phanatic to DC to platoon alongside Screech would be a world-class troll and would dramatically enliven Nats/Phillies matchups. Let’s make this happen, Washington.