Earlier in the month, we reported that the owner of a billboard displaying racist content in Worthington, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania had added an image featuring characters from the Peanuts comic strip. The image included characters Charlie Brown and Franklin Armstong with altered dialogue in which Franklin described Charlie Brown as a racist after he admitted he liked being white.
Yes, Franklin’s last name is Armstrong. He was given that surname after cartoonist Robb Armstrong.
I’ve learned that outside counsel for Peanuts Worldwide has contacted the owner of billboard, John Placek, and the owner of the property displaying the billboard, Worthington-West View Fire Department, with a cease and desist demand.
The images are ordered to be immediately removed. Here’s a portion of the letter:
Your reproduction and display of the Charlie Brown and Franklin characters are without PWW’s authorization, and therefore constitute the infringement of PWW’s copyright rights under 17 U.S.C. §§ 106 and 501 of the U.S. Copyright Act.
Moreover, your unauthorized display of these characters, which function as PWW’s trademarks, constitutes trademark infringement, false designation of origin, unfair competition, dilution, misappropriation and passing off under 15 U.S.C. § 1125 of the U.S. Trademark Act, 54 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann, §1101 et seq., 73 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §201-1 et seq. and/or under related common law doctrines.
In particular, your use of these characters maligns, disparages, and undermines the values which Peanuts’ creator Charles M. Schulz stood for, and which he sought to reflect in his stories and characters– namely, the values of compassion, good will and tolerance.
I was especially struck by the final sentence of the letter – that this is about the values of compassion, good will, and tolerance. It is poignant to think that Charles M Schulz can reach across the decades and from beyond death to offer a gesture of support to residents of Worthington Borough.
Mr. Placek has a lot of power and influence, but nowhere near as much as the Peanuts Worldwide syndicate. So will he comply or will be spin this into his narrative of being an oppressed white man? He won’t win in court, but he can try.
The fire department now faces a dilemma of its own. They state that their leasing contract with Mr. Placek does not have any clauses to address content or invalidate the agreement. So how can they force Mr. Placek’s hand here? And what about the next copyright violation letter? Is Mr. Placek going to start respecting copyright law in order to continue his campaign of white terror unimpeded by legal challenges? Is it worth that much to him?
On July 31, 1968, Charles M. Schulz introduced Franklin as the newest member of the Peanut’s gang. You may remember that he attended school with Peppermint Patty and Marcie and was part of the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving festivities. You can read more about this momentous event via an article on NPR.
Here is the original strip introducing Franklin Armstrong to Peanut’s readers, shared appropriately with attribution and without alteration.
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