Still smiling after all these years

September 27, 1998|By Hartford Courant

At the end of 1963, Massachusetts-based State Mutual Life Insurance Co. was launching an in-house morale-boosting campaign. Harvey Ball, a commercial artist, was commissioned to create a design for 100 or so feel-good buttons. The design was a hit. Customers and employees started snatching them up, and pretty soon the company was ordering pins by the thousands. Ball had created a fad: the smiley face.

Since then, Smiley has appeared on every imaginable cultural canvas, from lunch boxes and boxer shorts to Frisbees to salt and pepper shakers. Today it is enjoying a retro renaissance: as spokesface for Wal-Mart stores and logo for Fox TV's "That '70s Show."

So how much has Ball pocketed from this hardy icon?

"About $45," he says.

Ball says it, fittingly, with a smile, but he's not a happy man. The source of his annoyance: an enterprising Frenchman named Franklin Loufrani, who claims that he invented Monsieur Smiley in 1968 in France. His trademarks on the design have, by his own account, earned him millions.

It's not the first time others have taken credit for Smiley. Like two brothers in Pennsylvania: Their claim was debunked, but they did link Smiley to the expression "Have a nice day." ("Personally, I think it's insipid," Ball says.)

But now Ball, 77, is fighting back, challenging Loufrani's trademarks in Europe, Asia and Africa, and asking the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office whether it is "possible for me, the creator of 'Smiley,' to gain legal claim to it after all these years."

While he awaits the rulings, Ball is making up for lost time. With a partner, he's transformed part of a Worcester, Mass., shop into a Smiley shrine where Smiley pens, mugs, balls, stickers, lotion, beanbag dolls, key rings and more are for sale. He also sells signed Smiley prints for $150 a pop, and has set up a shopping Web site at www.smileyproductions.com.

Not that Smiley will ever be all about the money, he says. "The thing is, this has gone around the world. It's reached everybody. Its message is as good as you can get," he says, adding, "I made the world smile."

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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