New Kids in the courtroom? Local company to sue pop group @

January 09, 1991|By Randi Henderson

You'd think it would be hard to confuse a puppet company that teaches children about disabilities with a teenybopper rock band.

But with names like the Kids on the Block and the New Kids on the Block, people have been getting the two mixed up, said Barbara Aiello, founder of the puppet company. She plans to file suit today against the New Kids band in the U.S. District for the Southern District of New York, asking that they call themselves something else.

It's a David vs. Goliath conflict, acknowledged Ms. Aiello, who is director of the Columbia-based puppet group. But after unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the New Kids' management, she decided to sue.

"We have evidence that this confusion has harmed our business and our reputation," Ms. Aiello said yesterday. The problems started about four years ago "when parents of kids with disabilities started calling and saying, 'We took our kids to what we thought was a puppet show and it was a rock concert.' "

She also heard of disappointed schoolchildren who were expecting to see a rock band and were unhappy with a puppet show teaching them lessons about life.

The problem intensified in the past year, she added, with news reports about fighting by New Kids members. "Our reputation and sales are rising and falling on their reputation," Ms. Aiello said. "When the New Kids were perceived as squeaky clean, so were we. When they were seen as bad boys, it spills right over."

The suit claims that the name "New Kids on the Block" represents a trademark infringement on "Kids on the Block," which was copyrighted in 1977 and has been used ever since.

The motion -- filed in New York, where the New Kids management and their record company, CBS Records, are based -- asks for a preliminary injunction against further use of the name "New Kids on the Block" during the pending litigation. Frank Wiggins, the puppet group's attorney, estimated that the court would take some kind of action within the next 30 to 90 days.

Joy Huckaby, counsel for Dick Scott Entertainment, which manages the New Kids, would not comment on the suit except to say, "We have no conflict with that group. Since they have filed a lawsuit, we have to defend ourselves."

Ms. Huckaby added that she could not envision a scenario in which the New Kids would change their name.

Mr. Wiggins said that it is possible that the New Kids could offer a financial settlement that "would be adequate for us to consider letting them continue using the name without further action." Neither he nor Ms. Aiello would specify an amount they would consider adequate.

"It isn't vindictive redress we're looking for," Ms. Aiello said. "We would have to mount a publicity campaign of monumental proportions to let the public know we exist, and I have no idea how much that would cost."

Last March Ms. Aiello and her attorney met with New Kids management to see if a lawsuit could be avoided. "I got the feeling this wasn't very important to them," she said. "Basically they said, 'We're sorry for this confusion and if it's too big a problem for you, change your name.' "

But that is not something she is willing to do because the name of her company is integral to its function, Ms. Aiello emphasized. She began using child-sized puppets to teach children about disabilities when she was a special education teacher in Washington. By the time she had created four of the puppets, she began consulting professionals about a name for her troupe.

"The professionals told me to stay away from words like 'special,' 'exceptional' and 'different,'" she recalled. "They said I had to make the point that these are regular kids and I said, 'Yeah, like they're regular kids on the block.'"

Kids on the Block was just the name she was looking for: "It signifies our work and our hope for people with differences."

The company has grown to employ 21 people and now not only puts on its own shows but sells puppets, scripts and program materials to schools and other educational groups around the world. More than 10,000 puppets are in use in by 1,300 groups in all 50 states and 21 foreign countries, Ms. Aiello said. Subject areas include physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, AIDS, cancer, asthma and social concerns like child abuse, drug and alcohol use and literacy.

The troupe now has 43 different characters, she added, making the point that "there are 'new' Kids on the Block all the time."

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