Topman, Santa Jaws and Copyright Infringement

As somebody who primarily shops for clothing in the United States, I had only a passing familiarity with the British retailer Topman. Essentially, as I’ve come to find out, they’re the Gap of the UK. Their stores fill the malls and high streets across Great Britain, and they’re expanding into the US with stores in California, Florida, Texas, and many more. They also distribute their products through Nordstrom. Not a small operation, is what I’m saying — one that can afford to license artwork, instead of taking it without permission.

The Beginning

Let me back up and introduce myself. My name is Stefan Lawrence. I currently work in theme park design (which is fun) but in a previous life I was a full-time professional graphic designer. In January 2012, I picked up stakes and moved from New York City to Los Angeles to break into the theme park industry. And shortly after I moved, I made this poster:

Chomp chomp chomp.

Essentially, I was looking at old Disneyland attraction posters and thought: there should be something similar for Universal Studios. So I doodled it up and posted it on my website, StefanRules.com. You can see the time stamp for the blogpost, here, showing that I posted it on April 17th, 2012.

I have always been a fan of theme parks and their attendant graphics. At the time, I created a lot of these attraction-style posters, strictly as fun portfolio fillers. I have never sold nor distributed this poster, and if Universal ever sent a cease-and-desist, I’d immediately take it down from my website. The Jaws logo may be Universal’s, but everything about the shark was created from scratch, with no use of Universal reference material.

Sweatergate

I didn’t think much of it after that. That is, until I received an email from a good friend of mine in the UK that said: “Isn’t this your Jaws design???” And here’s what he sent me:

Pretty similar, wouldn’t you say? Here’s a side-by-side for easy comparison:

The teeth are the same, the nose, the angle, the three little wrinkles on the nose…yeah, I’d say they’re pretty darn similar. They’ve even copied my silly waves. But I’ll let you people be the judge of that. All I can tell you is that everybody I’ve ever shown this to has immediately said “Hey! That’s your shark!”

So as soon as I could, I sent off a sternly worded letter to both Topman and Nordstrom (which was also selling the sweater in the US). I encouragingly received a letter saying that they “take the issue of alleged intellectual property infringement very seriously and take great care to investigate any such allegations rigorously.” This all sounded good until I received Topman’s complete response, which essentially said: We’ll take it down and stop selling it, but it’s not your shark. Here’s a paraphrased list of what they said about my “Shark Design”:

  • The heads are different
  • The teeth are different
  • The waves are different, because my design has splashes that penetrate the mouth
  • The gills are different (my note: there are no gills in either instance — they may be referring to the nose wrinkles?)
  • The shape of the eyes are different
  • The inside of the mouth is different because I made my mouth red and indicated depth
  • Also, sharks are from nature and you can’t copyright items from nature
  • Plus, the similarities come from the fact that sharks have certain facial features and also they live in water.

They also provided reference of other sharks that they claimed are very similar to my shark. This is the reference they provided:

I have many things to say about all that, but my main response is: none of those sharks look like my shark, and the shark on the Topman sweater looks exactly like my shark.

However, true to their word, both Nordstrom and Topman did take down the sweater and stopped selling it on their websites. Because I had not registered my artwork with the copyright office (always register your artwork, kids!), I would only be able to recover actual damages (the amount of profit they had made), not some huge settlement. Because of this, I decided to take this as a win and just let it go. It would cost me just as much to sue as I would get. So I swallowed my hurt feelings, like Jaws swallowed most of Ben Gardner. I moved on.

Sweatergate, Pt. 2

However, idle curiosity caused me to Google topman santa jaws a few weeks later. And a whooooole bunch of links popped up. Whereas they did stop selling the sweater in their stores, they appear to have dumped it into secondary retailers all over the world. Here’s a selection of different bored men wearing the sweater:

My last communication from them was on December 14th, 2017. They provided me with the US sales figures (which were fairly low) but not with the UK sales figures (which, given their presence in the market, are guaranteed to be much higher). I requested those sales figures on December 20th, 2017, with zero response.

If they are continuing to sell the sweaters all over the world even after I informed them of their copyright violation, it is unethical at best. I sent Topman another email on February 1st, 2018 to express my concern — with no response.

Come on now, Topman

Here’s the thing: I completely understand how this kind of situation arises, especially with the fast turnaround Christmas market. I’m sure they assigned some junior designer the task of coming up with a bajillion sweater ideas. The mockup became the artwork, and somebody forgot to do the due diligence of making sure it was copyright cleared.

I get it.

But a stand-up company would acknowledge their mistake and make it right. All I ask, as a working design professional, is that I’m compensated for my design. I’m happy to work out a licensing arrangement, given that they’re willing to continue to profit off my work. I do challenge Topman to make this right, and show that they really care about copyright infringement, as they indicated to me in their initial letter. Also: an apology would be nice.

About the Author: Stefan Lawrence is a theme park designer who lives and works in Los Angeles. You can find more of his graphic design work at his website, Stefan Rules!!!