Welcome to the court case of the year.
The fate of the Phillie Phanatic’s future hangs in the balance with a lawsuit that could determine whether the iconic mascot can enter free agency.
The Philadelphia Phillies filed suit last week against Harrison/Erickson, Inc. (H/E) — the company which helped create the Phanatic in 1978 — claiming they planned to terminate a prior agreement which gave the team mascot rights. The Phillies are also arguing that the company is seeking to “make the Phanatic a free agent” unless their rights agreement is renegotiated for “millions of dollars.”
How did this start?
The issue stems from a dispute over who created the Phanatic. The suit alleges that the original concept for the Phanatic came from then-executive Vice President Bill Giles. It’s stated that Giles imagined the Phanatic as “green, fat, furry, big-nosed, and instantly accessible to children,” which is precisely as creepy as it sounds.
This imagining of the mascot occurred in the late 1970s, the Phillies allege, at which point they turned to legendary puppet designer Bonnie Erickson. A former vice president of the Jim Henson Company, Erickson is directly responsible for the design of Miss Piggy, Stadler and Waldorf, as well as dozens of sports mascots, including K.C. Wolf (Kansas City Chiefs), Hugo the Hornet (Charlotte Hornets) and Jaxson de Ville (Jacksonville Jaguars).
The suit alleges that Erickson and husband Wayde Harrison were given more than $200,000 in construction and licensing costs to create the mascot, which gave the Phillies rights to the Phanatic for five years. The agreement was renegotiated in 1984, paying the pair another $215,000. The Phillies allege that this 1984 agreement granted the team perpetual rights to the Phanatic.
What’s happening now?
Erickson and Harrison are attempting to exercise Section 203 of the Copyright Act to regain control of the Phanatic. It states creators have the ability to terminate a rights agreement, even if it has been granted in perpetuity — so long as certain prerequisites are met. The right to terminate an agreement cannot be exercised until 35 years after the agreement, which makes 2019 the first year H/E had the right to try and regain control.
The Phillies say they have been told that unless the team stops using the Phanatic by June 15, 2020, they will be in breach of copyright and taken to court.
What are the Phillies saying?
The team’s argument against H/E is threefold:
- The Phillies believe the original design of the Phanatic is theirs because of the design specifications Bill Giles requested.
- They contend that the character is based on how performers bring the mascot to life, not the costume itself.
- The Phillies claim that H/E fraudulently represented the Phanatic on copyright forms by calling it “an artistic sculpture,” rather than a mascot costume.
The Phillies are seeking to bar H/E from terminating the rights agreement, ban them from suing the team in the future, and issue a permanent injunction barring them from selling the Phanatic to another team.
What happens if the Phillies lose?
Mascot madness. If the court doesn’t find merit in the Phillies’ case it will allow H/E to terminate the agreement and take back possession of the Phanatic design and mascot. The Phillies claim H/E wants to renegotiate the deal, potentially keeping the mascot in Philadelphia, but like any free agency period, we could see some very weird things happen.
Any team in need of a mascot could bid for the Phanatic’s services, even outside of baseball. This happened with an Erickson-designed mascot before when Youppi! left the Montreal Expos when the team dissolved and became the mascot of the Montreal Canadiens.
There are dozens of teams with atrocious mascots and there’s little doubt that the Phanatic is one of the crown jewels of the mascot world. But would he be as endearing after jumping ship to another team? Just imagine …
The New England Phanatic
Infinitely cooler than some minutemen.
The New York Phanatic
Finally the Knicks manage to sign someone in free agency.
The Montreal Phanatic
Youppi! and the Phanatic is a buddy comedy I can get behind.
The Los Angeles Phanatic
Los Angeles is a market that can handle the Phanatic.
Until then …
The Phillies are demanding a jury trial to determine the fate of the Phanatic, and it’s going to be the sports trial of the year.