THE MIGHTY MOUTH MASK ! ™
Part 2 of a 2
part message from Ronn Lucas
on the copyright on the Mask.
|CONFUSION IN THE MARKETPLACE|
I was working on a Disney Cruise in Nov. of 2000 when a nice family came up to me after a show and raved about my Mighty Mouth Mask (TM) routine and how they had seen me do it on another Disney ship. I apologized and explained to them that this was my first and only cruise for Disney. No, no, they insisted; they had seen me before. And why didn't I do my magic act?
With some embarrassment I had to explain that they had probably seen somebody else.
This is not the first time that this has happened to me. What hits me most at times like this is not the dismay at feeling copied or ripped off (although I do feel that, too); ...no, what hits me most is that TO THE WORLD OUTSIDE of ventriloquism, we vent. performers are all pretty much one and the same person. I've been told many times, (this year alone) that I was great on SOAP, and why didn't I use my 'Chili On A Stick'? Now a certain amount of harmless ignorance on the part of the viewer about what we do just comes with the job. As one chat room vent-contributor said, more than half of the people we perform for, have never seen a live ventriloquist. I set people straight a lot and we laugh. That doesn't hurt. I'm proud of my friendship with Jay Johnson (and we all know that JD has made more money than your favorite deity). However, the bigger picture is this: we are in a profession that really lacks identifiable superstars to the world OUTSIDE of our little vent. universe. There are no really big vents, myself included. That's why my hanging onto ANYTHING that makes me stand out in the viewing public's imaginations as being different from the rest, is all the more important to me.
By the way, when I got back from my sole Disney Cruise, my agent said that my ratings were great and the audience's praise for the show went through the roof. I was pleased. The agent then revealed that I was too high-priced for the Disney ships and that they'd decided to continue with the cheaper "guy-with-the-mask" for some more cruise runs. I didn't even know that we were in competition! With my agent's help I tracked down this guy's demo tape. I looked at it. This vent. didn't try to change much of my act. His mask also looked just like mine. I've since turned it over to my attorney to handle. It is this kind of confusion on the part of the buyers and agents that gets to me the most.
The cost of legal maintenance is high. Sadly, lawyer's fees have become a regular part of my protecting and doing business. In the year 2000 I spent 60 thousand dollars defending the ownership of my act and characters. I filed two lawsuits over 1999/2000; and in one case I was awarded damages while the other was settled (to my satisfaction) out of court. The larger of the two cases was about copyright infringement and confusion in the marketplace - but it did NOT involve the mask. Still, I learned a LOT about infringements, copyrighting, and copying.
To date, I have sent other vents warning letters and legal notices concerning the copying of my mask routine, but I have not yet sued another ventriloquist. However, in the case of the Disney Cruise example [above], it may be time that I do. It bothers me that some rogue vent. is out there profiting from my work and creativity, using my words and a poor copy of my prop(s), and is taking bookings away from me all the while using my best stuff. He's even undercutting me. No, I am not arrogant (as one of you have accused). I am righteously angry.
The law builds our society up though previous legal rulings called precedents. Before any trial, the attorneys for both sides of a case actively seek out all of the previous and similar cases that have been ruled upon. My attorney and I have stockpiled a few of our own; but it would end my problem(s) concerning the mask routine once and for all if I was to receive a direct ruling. I guess what I'm saying here is ...that I'm going to have to find someone to sue. Am I being a ba%^@#d, here? Gee, I don't think so. I am more interested in cementing my ownership than securing damages. If you think about this fairly, there is no other way to get an impartial ruling EXCEPT in the courts.
ABOUT BILL BOLEY
In my opinion, Bill Boley was practically a saint. I have never said anything bad about Bill. No one that I know of in the United States has done more to help people or advance the artform than Col. Bill Boley. May he rest in peace. My best friend and brother in the business is Buddy Big Mountain. Buddy was a direct product of Col. Boley. Bill will always be sorely missed.
For all of his goodness, Bill was also a human being. Humans occasionally make mistakes and errors in judgment. (God, knows I'm human enough for several people.) Immediately after I debuted my mask routine at a Ft. Mitchell convention a decade ago, Bill enthusiastically told me that he'd been working on something similar but that he had not taken it in the direction that I had. He asked if he could copy my act. Those WERE his words and he said them in the dealer's room in front of witnesses. Now I knew Bill had a stellar reputation but I had only met Bill a few times at the Ft. Mitchell Vent Conventions. We had never linked up at any other time. I hedged, and I told him that I wanted to keep this act as mine for a while longer, but that I'd be happy to look over what he had if he wanted to show it to me. That was the last time I saw or spoke with Bill Boley.
About a year and some later, I was told that Bill was manufacturing a moving mouth mask operated by a pull string in the front and that he was beginning to sell them. I was pretty stunned. (I didn't even know that he manufactured stuff to sell.) I tried calling Bill Boley. I wanted to settle this like gentlemen. For four weeks I called from a different city each week because I was on tour. There were six calls in all. Bill never answered nor returned my calls. No one from his household did. Because a convention was rapidly approaching, I became desperate. I was anxious because Bill's masks might be sold without us resolving this between us. Finally, as I was heading overseas to do a show, I asked my attorney Ken Feinswog to send a letter to Bill. I told Ken to make it legal enough to evoke a response but to keep it 'nice'. The letter was never a threat of a lawsuit; but it was more like a legal challenge of ownership that did, however, list possible damages that under the law I might be able to seek. The letter was sent.
To my horror Ken called me in Europe a week later and told me that Bill was in the hospital having a foot removed due to diabetes! As Feinswog relayed to me, Bill's wife had called, noticeably distraught by the letter. She offered that Bill would not make or sell any more masks if we would back down.
Unlike most attorneys, Ken found himself in a double position of trying NOT to take advantage of the Boley family when they were at their most vulnerable, but still represent my rights as he saw them. He assured Mrs. Boley (and without talking me first) that her offer was enough. He wished Bill a speedy recovery. After Ken called me with this story, I agreed that he had done the right thing. I felt really bad for Bill. Ken wanted to follow up with a letter that Bill was to sign which also included a client list so that we could track down all of the masks that he had sold. I refused. I was too embarrassed. Even though we approached this from the point of view that I was the victim, I still felt bad for Bill over this incident and his medical problems. I just wanted this all to go away.
Feinswog then followed up with something that I did NOT ask him to do. After the "damage" was done I reluctantly accepted the wisdom of his actions on my behalf. He sent a follow-up letter to the Ventriloquist Conventions, exclaiming ownership of my intellectual and physical property and asking that moving mouth mask sales not be tolerated. John Brooking is the president of the board of Venthaven. John is good stuff and a clear thinker. John is not a ventriloquist, but is an attorney. He supported the direction of this letter and thought it was important enough not only to act upon, but to also read aloud to the conventioneers. (The trade-out for John's support was that I was even more embarrassed by the public announcement. Oh well. Ever wonder why I haven't been to a convention in Kentucky for a while?)
To conclude about Bill, folks please keep in mind I never did the following:
I never took a dime from Col. Bill Boley. I never asked him to sign anything because his word and reputation were enough. I never sought his client list of moving mouth mask sales, nor asked him to take back any of the masks that he'd sold (although now I wish I had). I never went public with this story because I wanted to minimize the pain for both of us.
Instead I incurred, and ate, all of my own legal costs. And I sat silent as a one-sided story got out, anyway. Recently Steve Axtell made me aware of an Ebay auction of one of Bill Boley's masks. The auction is closed now, but I believe that the locator record and provenance (the item's history) can still be found at
<< http://cgi.ebay.com/aw-cgi/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=1243355083 >>
I don't need to challenge the honorable dead; but instead I challenge the living people who sold this moving mouth mask. Parts of its written 'biography' of how this item came to be, are very, VERY questionable. This had to have been fabricated by someone else other than Bill Boley. Why? Because if it's true, then Bill had ten years to respond to my initial challenge and my claim with a claim of his own. He never did. Now irresponsible claims are being made, on Bill Boley's behalf, when he's no longer around to support them.
IN CONCLUSION / ONE HOT ROUTINE
From the first time I did the moving mouth mask act I realized this is one hot routine. From nearly the very first time that I performed it, other ventriloquists have realized too and either asked me for it, or tried to figure out how they could copy it. (I've been stuck defending it pretty much ever since.) On a moral level, I happen to think that copying is wrong. As a performer I have stood in an audience and watched one of my peers do my time tested comedy material word for word. The only thing that tops that kind of sinking feeling, is the loss of a loved one, or watching one's home go up in flames. As an art student I was taught that it was OK to go to a museum and copy the masters in order to hone one's skills, but it was not OK to go out into the world and make money by copying. That was called forgery. A true artist must reach down inside and come up with an expression of his/her own individuality. I feel this routine, and it's props, are an expression of my originality as a ventriloquist.
I will not be at either the Las Vegas Convention or the Venthaven Convention this year due to a TV project. I plan to attend them both next year, however (for better or for worse). I also plan this year to have Ken Feinswog draft a letter to Val Vox and again to John Brooking stating my case to protect my copyright. I mean no Offense. Just Defense. If I don't defend my copyright them some day it WILL become public domain.
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