Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Whatta Ya In For?"

Do Twilight themed cakes pose any hazards to decorators or consumers? And I'm talking about more than just the dayglow surprise one is likely to get after consuming so much black food coloring. The answer   under certain conditions   appears to be, "Yes."

I come to this question in a roundabout way. I was thinking about marketing    or maybe just about showing off. As a kid it seemed that all any budding artist who wanted to get some positive attention had to do was knock out a respectable Mickey Mouse or Snoopy. The same kid could crank out an original creation and possibly get some ooohs and ahhhs but the real attention grabbers were the well known cartoon characters.

This is understandable if you consider that the other kids had no point of reference for an original creation. Was it expertly or poorly drawn? Even if the drawing was perceived as well executed it still didn't have the emotional equity of a Mickey Mouse, or if the kid was really showing off, Spider-Man (and all those little web lines on his costume). Clearly, the publicity cost/reward ratio for drawing Snoopy was better than that of drawing "this monster-thing I just thought up."

Of course, as adults we   the hypothetical young artist, his equally hypothetical peers, and I   have a greater respect for the creative process and for originality. Except for those times when we don't; those times when we feel the emotional draw of the comfortable and familiar.

When attending a cake show I enjoy watching the other attendees almost as much as I enjoy studying the cakes. Small groups with cameras saunter past the rows of exquisite buttercream roses and fondant swags, periodically stopping to take a photograph. Then they come to the Dora the Explorer Cake. They stop. They point. They whisper. Then they photograph the cake from every possible angle while commenting that they have to email a photo to this person or that, who will, "just die when they see it."

 While these folks might feel unqualified to critique those difficult to master piping and fondant techniques, they know a good (or bad) Dora the Explorer when they see one. They, like the rest of us, are drawn to the familiar. So, as a cake decorator it seems practical and economical to associate my talents and services with icons of popular culture.

However, "cashing in" on the popularity of something like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight stories   you thought I'd forgotten about the Twilight cakes    and/or the actors who portray Meyer's characters on screen raises several questions. First, is it a creative cop-out to hitch my wagon to someone else's popular creation, such as Twilight? And second, how long before I get a Cease And Desist order (or worse) from those who hold the rights to the Twilight franchise?

Now, I know a little about the joys/hassles of product licensing. I am not using the hyperbole of the lawyer who has been practicing for 30 years and says, "I know a little something about the law." I literally know "a little" about what is involved in creating a product around a licensed, copyrighted entity.

I mention this because copyright violation is a growing issue as non-traditional cake decorating grows in popularity thanks to TV shows like The Ace of Cakes. The increased availability and use of materials like fondant and gum paste facilitate the edible replication of famous entertainment icons like Mickey Mouse or the Peanuts gang. The internet makes it easy to share photos of these replications with friends. And simple naivete makes it easy to cross the line into copyright violation.

I don't have any statistics but I suspect that most copyright violators go unpunished and likely unaware of their trespass. While it has been suggested that both sellers and purchasers of unauthorized merchandise can be named in copyright violation suits, it is not cost effective to prosecute every time Mickey or Snoopy is misappropriated for a child's birthday party.

I have noticed, however, that the use of licensed characters is being discouraged or banned by cake show organizers who want to protect themselves and their sponsors from potential law suits. While no cakes featuring copyrighted characters are being bought or sold at the shows, the act of including photographs of  such cakes on an organization's web site or in printed materials can be interpreted as the use of copyrighted characters to promote the organization's enterprise. In other words, the show organizers, sponsors and participating vendors are profiting from the unauthorized use of a protected property.

So, maybe the loftier question of whether or not using established pop-culture icons to demonstrate my mad cake decorating skills is a creative sell-out takes a back seat to the more pedestrian threat of legal action. If I ever found myself in something resembling the Hollywood version of a police station holding cell, filled with tough, menacing cell mates and one of them crowds me and asks, "Whatta ya in for?" I suspect that, "Cake decorating," might not be the ideal answer.

No comments:

Post a Comment