The latest incarnation of My Little Pony has been worthy of plenty of discussion since its debut. The quality is excellent, the artists behind it are superb and its fans are devoted at a level most marketers can only fantasize about. Thankfully, the network that broadcasts the show, The Hub, has been smart enough to realise this and have allowed the fan community to grow freely, sometimes offering a little fertiliser of their own to give it a helping hand. I’ve discussed the whole phenomenon numerous times too, praising the progressive approach shown by the network to the entire affair.
However, a dark cloud has begun to cast its shadow over Equestria. I was expecting to discuss just one example, but this morning a second, and much more vicious example of a My Little Pony trademark dispute came to light. Both concern fans and both concern, not the Hub, but its parent company, Hasbro.
Via: Equestria Gaming
The first example to come to light (via Techdirt) is the fan-made online game MLP: Online. It was an entirely independent exercise and the developers apparently spent over a year and a half creating it before releasing the first episode just there in October.
Unfortunately, all the effort appears to have been in vain as Hasbro’s lawyers pounced on the unofficial game, going after it for both copyright and trademark infringement:
Shortly after that–exactly 4 weeks prior to now–we received a complaint about copyright and trademark infringement. We initially dismissed this it was most likely submitted by some trolls, as they could be submitted anonymously by anyone through our CDN. However, we continued to look into it, and by the following Monday, found it to be very real.
The developers admit that they weren’t exactly in the clear:
Hasbro is not to be blamed here. As per U.S. Trademark law, as soon as an infringement comes to light, they are obligated to defend the trademark, or they will lose it. They had no choice in the matter, regardless of what they thought of the project or how it benefited them.
However it appears that Hasbro was having none of it, even though there was a willingness on the developer’s side to work with them:
The matter was quite strict: there was little that we could do to work around it. We removed the download link and development was suspended. Discussions continued through the month, but it came down to one fact: MLP:Online had come to an end.
Now there are plenty of official MLP games out there, but the real issue here is whether or not they cater to the fans. A cursory glance of the Hasbro website raises questions about whether it caters to the brony crowd (hint: not if you’re over 10 or a boy). So it would seem natural that someone somewhere would create a game that does cater to the older crowd. MLP: Online appeared to fit that bill. Sadly, Hasbro, while legally right to defend their trademarks, chose the ‘nuclear’ option that will do nothing to foster the fan community.
The Plush Artist
The other, and far more intriguing story, popped up today and concerns Sherry Bourlan. Sherry is a MLP fan as well as an expert at creating plush toys (check out this very thorough post featuring her recent appearance at the Silly Filly Con in Kansas City). Her’s are not the cheapo kind though, they are expertly crafted and sold for a hefty price (this one sold for over $1,300 and has surely risen in value since). Ms. Bourlan was served with a notice of trademark infringement for selling her replica ponies through eBay with which she promptly complied (her store is empty at the time of writing)
What makes this case fascinating is that it is purely a trademark case (no copyright is involved) and because it centers around the concept of trademark known as ‘dilution‘, where an unofficial product may threaten an official product or cause confusion in the mind of the consumer.
In this instance, although Bourlan operated independently, there doesn’t appear to be any real dilution of a competing Hasbro product or even the My Little Pony trademark. Her products were of stunningly high quality and in any case, Hasbro doesn’t even make a competing plush toy!
So are they right to send a cease and desist? Legally, yes, but on the shooting-yourself-in-the-foot scale, this scores s blunderbuss. The company could so easily have come to an agreement with Bourlan for either a small or negligible -cost license and allow her to continue making her fantastic plushes. The My Little Pony brand is hardly being harmed by these stunning creations although they do show up Hasbro’s shortcomings as a brand; they could never hope to charge that much for a plush.
The moral of both stories is that large corporations can be incredibly short-sighted when it comes to the little people who actually support them. As noted at the top, the actual studio and network (The Hub) has nothing to do with both cases, a not entirely surprising state of affairs given their known stance on the show’s fans.
The parent corporation, Hasbro, on the other hand, sees things in a different light; towing the line of many similar behemoths by simply assuming that any unofficial activity is bad activity that needs to be put down. Little do they know that they are only hurting themselves. Especially so with the plushes. Hasbro doesn’t target adults but Ms. Bourlan clearly does. It’s a market they have actively neglected and are highly unlikely to get into anytime soon, so there’s no skin off their nose at the end of the day. The game is a similar matter and by actively stating that they are ignoring older fans (who have money!), the company is only fooling themselves.
Personally, if I were head of Hasbro, I would be taking a close look at the activity of my legal affairs department and whether or not they are justifying their activities. Defending trademarks is one thing, but you do not need to annihilate to win. Heck, even Disney back in the day found it much more agreeable to get a license out of infringers than to shut them down. They won by coming into the legal fold and Disney won because he sold more products that paid royalties!