Grumpy Cat: the feline who grew a business empire with IP rights

Author:Anca Draganescu-Pinawin
Position:IP Counsel, Novagraaf, Switzerland
SUMMARY

There once was a cat with such a look of disgruntlement on her face that one day in September six years ago, her owner’s brother felt compelled to take a picture and post it on reddit for all to see. She looked so grumpy!

 
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The cat very quickly became an Internet sensation. As P.G. Wodehouse would have put it, anyone could see that, if not actually disgruntled, she looked far from being gruntled. Many people made memes from the picture: they took it, added a funny caption, and posted it on the Internet for others to have a laugh and share before watching other cat videos, flicking through pictures of kittens, or otherwise carrying on with their lives.

And so was born the most famous cat in the world: Grumpy Cat.

Now the grumpy cat’s owner, a waitress toiling away in a restaurant, and her business partner brother, could spot a good business opportunity, no matter how sour its expression, when it stared them in the face.

So they started a company called Grumpy Cat Limited and to protect the “Grumpy Cat” intellectual property (IP), hired IP counsel to file the appropriate copyright and trademark applications. They began selling all sorts of everyday objects bearing the image of the grumpy cat: pens, mugs, calendars, even the New York Times-bestselling Grumpy Guide to Life.

Grumpy Cat had her own YouTube channel, website and Instagram and Facebook accounts, and even featured in her own TV commercial for Honey Nut Cheerios®, and a McDonald’s commercial ! The cat became famous; her owner, rich, although no one could exactly pinpoint the size of her fortune (but many tried). Was it USD 1 million or 100 million? No one could say. Still, the cat’s grumpy expression persisted.

But if simply putting the picture of a cat on everyday objects and selling them could make so much money, one thing was clear: that picture and trademarks had to be protected. With so much at stake, not just anybody should be able to use the grumpy cat’s image and marks: they would first have to ask for the owner’s permission. The cat owner’s company would establish how and where the picture and the marks could be used, and if those rules were broken, the user would end up in a lot of trouble.

You see, the cat owner had to make sure she was protecting her money-making cat with a veritable fortress of IP rights: copyright, trademarks and licensing agreements. While all these rights allowed licensees to enjoy and benefit from the Grumpy Cat business, they made quite certain that nobody could not ride on the cat’s coat tails and make it their own business without first seeking permission from the cat owner. To do otherwise might well cause them to be dragged like a mouse into court to explain their...

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