Originally created 09/26/98

Creators of smiley face icon not laughing now

Two hours into "Forrest Gump," the quirky flick about a simpleton with the Midas touch, the title character crosses paths with a businessman looking for salvation after losing everything in the T-shirt business.

After a passing truck splashes the pair with mud, the down-and-out businessman offers up a bright yellow T-shirt as a towel. And when Gump returns it after wiping his face, it bears the unmistakable impression of the now ubiquitous yellow smiley face.

"Well, some years later," Gump says in an innocent monotone, "I found out that that man did come up with an idea for a T-shirt.

"He made a lot of money off of it."

Oh, how wrong that is.

In reality, there is no Forrest Gump of Greenbow, Ala. But there is a Harvey Ball of Worcester, Mass., a soft-spoken great-grandfather who 35 years ago gave birth to what may be -- with apologies to Leonardo da Vinci -- the most famous smile ever created.

Smiley has appeared on every imaginable cultural canvas, from lunch boxes to Frisbees to salt and pepper shakers. It is also enjoying a retro renaissance of late, most notably as Wal-Mart department stores' ever-cheerful spokesface.

So how much has Harvey Ball pocketed from this hardy 1970s icon?

"About $45," he says.

And, remarkably, he says it with a smile.

But lately, Ball has had a bit of trouble turning his frown upside down. The source of his annoyance: an enterprising Frenchman named Franklin Loufrani who has been saying that he invented Monsieur Smiley in the aftermath of the 1968 student riots in France.

It is more than an idle boast. By his own account, Loufrani has earned millions collecting royalties from companies around the globe that have affixed the smiley face to everything from lighters to boxer shorts.

Ball doesn't sweat the small things, a perspective he gained in World War II when an enemy shell exploded four feet from him in Okinawa, Japan, killing three soldiers around him.

And it's not the first time he has seen others take credit for Smiley. There were the brothers in Pennsylvania, whose claim was debunked, but who do have the distinction of linking Smiley to the expression "Have a nice day." ("Personally, I think it's insipid," Ball said. "I would have gone with, 'Have a great day."')

But Loufrani is another matter.

"He annoys me," Ball says with uncharacteristic venom. "He's a creep."

So Ball, 77, is fighting back, challenging Loufrani's trademarks in Europe, Asia and Africa, and trying to find out, as he wrote recently to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, whether it is "possible for me, the creator of 'Smiley,' to gain legal claim to it after all these years."

There's plenty of money to be made in the royalty business, as the folks who license "Star Wars" and Mickey Mouse will tell you. But grabbing exclusive rights to so common a symbol after so many years may be no easier than laying claim to a trademark on the peace symbol or Santa Claus.

Whatever happens in Washington, Ball, for the first time in decades, is in a position to make a few bucks off the smile. Ball has teamed up with an energetic local businesswoman who has transformed a wall of her glass and frame shop into something of a shrine to Ball. There are Smiley pens, Smiley mugs, Smiley balls, Smiley stickers, Smiley lotion, Smiley beanbag dolls, Smiley key rings and more.

Ball and his partner, Sandra Melkonian, sell signed Smiley prints for $150 a pop, and have set up a Web site at www.smileyproductions.com.

Ball, a commercial artist, created the smiley face at the end of 1963, under contract to the State Mutual Life Insurance Co., which was launching an in-house morale-boosting campaign. The company planned to produce 100 buttons, but customers and employees started snatching them up, and pretty soon the company was ordering pins by the thousands. Ball had created a fad.

"I didn't really realize it until 1971 when, all of a sudden, bingo, these things were everywhere," Ball said.

So Ball contacted a couple of patent attorneys. "But they said, 'Tough luck. It's too late. It's in the public domain,"' Ball said. "It never bothered me. I figured if I make the world a little happier, OK, fine."

His son, Charlie, who would become a lawyer, was not so philosophical.

"When he found out, he was about 18. He had just seen it in the newspaper, and he came storming into the kitchen, saying, 'You dummy!"'

(Charlie has since embraced the Smiley credo. )

Charlie is on the case, researching trademark claims in London, Tokyo and elsewhere. He and his father were spurred to action by a July 1 Wall Street Journal article in which Loufrani asserted ownership of Smiley and complained that U.S. companies were using the symbol without paying him.

Loufrani's son, Nicholas, vice president of marketing for Smiley Licensing in New York City, says his father designed a smiley face in 1971 as part of a newspaper promotion without ever seeing Ball's creation.

"If you make a design and you don't do anything with it, and someone else makes the same design and develops it and promotes and markets it, you cannot 35 years after say you have rights over the design," Nicholas Loufrani said. "It's crazy."

Ball dismisses his missed millions with cliches -- "How many steaks can you eat in a day?" -- but he seems sincere. He lives in the modest, three-bedroom cape he bought with his wife, Winifred, 48 years ago.

There are a few smiley mugs and glasses by the sink; a couple of magnets on the refrigerator; salt and pepper shakers on the washing machine. And on Ball's wrist -- and Winifred's as well -- a watch with Smiley on the face.

Smiley has earned Ball a fair amount of local recognition. There was an exhibit some years back at the Worcester Historical Museum. And at a ceremony at the local outlet mall, the mayor proclaimed Ball's 75th birthday "Harvey Ball Day" in Worcester.

Ball has suggested putting smiley faces on road signs at the entrances to the city. And a local ordinance mandates uniform, bright yellow trash bags in town, a perfect canvas for smiley faces, Ball figures.

So far, city officials have been lukewarm.

Ball isn't complaining.

"The thing is, this has gone around the world. It's reached everybody. Its message is as good as you can get. It crosses all barriers of language, nationality, religion," he says.

"I made the world smile."


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