Thursday, May 30, 2002

Comics Crackdown
Chicago-area cartoonist Stu Helm, also known as King VelVeeda, is being targeted by Kraft Foods because of his nickname. According to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund:

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is defending Chicago cartoonist Stu Helm against Kraft Foods in a trademark dilution and infringement suit over Helm's nickname King VelVeeda. The Phillip Morris owned cheese food giant is suing Helm to stop using the name on any comics or illustration work and for punitive damages of three times the amount he has made from using the name. They are also seeking a preliminary injunction that would prevent him from using the nickname leading into and during the trial. Helm had been signing comics under the moniker for over a decade before Kraft took notice and is the author of the comics collection "Singles" and operates the website

Helm had been defending himself against Kraft for over a month before he contacted the Fund for help. Within two days of taking Helm's call, he was in the office of CBLDF legal counsel Burton Joseph building a strategy for the case. Joseph agreed that Helm's long use of the nickname falls within the rights afforded him by the First Amendment and that he is being unjustly persecuted by Kraft. "This case represents a two billion dollar corporation trying to push the envelope in restricting the use of anything that resembles or ridicules a trademark," Joseph explains. "Kraft's complaint alleges that Stuart Helm's website, which averaged about 350 hits a day by use of the designation 'King VelVeeda's Cheesygraphics' diminished or diluted the value of the Velveeta pasteurized processed cheese food that they sell. The facts seem highly dubious from Kraft's standpoint that any visitor to would confuse King VelVeeda with Velveeta pasteurized processed cheese food."

Helm, Joseph, and the CBLDF see larger implications in Kraft's suit, and feel it's an important fight. "The law is in a state of flux with regard to trademark dilution, so it is more important than ever to protect the First Amendment rights of comic book creators who poke fun at the symbols of our popular culture," explains attorney and CBLDF Board Member Louise Nemschoff. "Claims such as the ones brought by Kraft against alternative comic book creator Stu Helm have a tendency to chill freedom of expression when it comes to such jokes, parody and commentary," Nemschoff adds.

Helm says, "Even though it seems like a small issue because it is a silly nickname, I feel that it's so far removed from the actual product that if I go down, it opens the door for a lot more action against a lot more people. It's a big issue. If it can happen to me -- and I'm so far removed from the product -- that sets a bad precedent."

Since taking the case, the Fund has spent dozens of legal hours waging Helm's defense, including the deposition of a Kraft executive and an appearance at the Preliminary Injunction hearing. "We are hoping first that the court will deny Kraft's request for a preliminary injunction and will ultimately rule that Kraft cannot prove any dilution of its trademark by the artist's nickname of King VelVeeda," Joseph says. "We're very confident, but the ultimate decision will depend on a case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Mosely d.b.a. Victor's Little Secret v. Secret Catalog Inc. (Victoria's Secret), and also whether Kraft's arguments are mere speculation or grounded in some evidence or genuine concern of market confusion."

"It's cases like this where the community's support of the Fund matters the most," says CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein. "Without our involvement Kraft could have steamrolled Stu into bankruptcy simply because they have more money and lawyers. We believe that Stu Helm is well within his First Amendment rights and are committed to defending them, despite the monstrous expense ahead of us. That's what the Fund was set up to do and this is what every membership and donation dollar goes into making happen."

Helm is grateful for the Fund's involvement in his case, but it's a hassle he never wanted. "I haven't tried to cut into their market by mimicking anything they do," Helm says. "I made a good name for myself doing what I do best which is my art and I just want to be left alone to do that."

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