The sad story of the trademark conflict between Phil Yu, proprietor of the blog Angry Asian Man, and Lela Lee, creator of the Angry Little Asian Girl comics and merchandise line, is now all over the Asian American Internet. I’m sharing my views on it because I have known both individuals for well over a decade and have a great deal of respect for what they’ve achieved — and because I’m distraught and appalled by the fact that this has grown so ugly and so public so fast. (And yet, that’s the reality of Asian America: News used to spread rapidly in our highly networked community even before the Internet. Now? We’re viral like Ebola.)
Everyone writing about this has made clear the relationships they have with the two individuals — part of what makes Asian America such a hot zone for memetic transmission is that in our small pond, everyone kind of knows everyone, or is connected to someone who does — so I’ll do the same.
Over the years, my relationship with Phil has gone from nodding, distant respect to close friendship. The latter has coincided with the recognition that, after the death of A. Magazine, the Asian American periodical I cofounded and led for a decade before it imploded messily in 2001, Phil has picked up its most important torch — our desire to encourage the proliferation and growth of Asian America as a culture, a community and an idea — and fanned it into a bonfire. He did it by embracing blogging, a new platform that reduced the costs of publishing to a level where individual creators could be heard against the lockstep chorus of establishment media. And he did it, unpaid, for years, refusing even to run ads for much of that time except for people, events and ideas that he actively supported (which he generally did for free — I know this because I and many friends of mine have been the beneficiaries of his growing platform’s influence in the past). But running free ads for things he wanted to celebrate and promote was very much in keeping with his idea for the blog and what it represented; the blog, after all, was and is essentially a signal booster for the things that Phil cares about — it is occasionally “angry,” but primarily better described as open, passionate and defiant about the rights of Asian Americans to be included, the need for Asian American voices to be heard and the responsibility of Asian Americans to participate.
In many ways, it is what I wanted A. Magazine to be in the era before the Internet, and what it could never be, because of the unpleasant realities of cost and commerce required by physical publishing. Atoms are expensive. Bits are cheap. (But not that cheap, and I’ll get to that later.)
I first encountered Lela back in the A. Mag era. We covered her in our pages. We published some of her comics, as I recall, and when we made our ultimately failed pivot to the Internet, her work was something our digital editor identified as a key voice that deserved to be spotlighted (and I remember even then that she was a tough negotiator, and very savvy to the business aspects of her creativity). I was personally a great admirer of her humor and vision, respected her business ambitions and even though we’ve had limited opportunities to interact over the past decade and change since, I’ve always seen her as a friend — as well as a necessary, provocative voice in our community.
Which is why I want to tell her that this campaign to “defend” her trademark against Phil (and others, like Wendy Xu, more on her later) is ultimately deeply damaging not only to them, but to her, and yes, to the larger, deeply interconnected community to which we belong.
I’m not going to argue the merits of the legal case that Lela has against Phil, should she pursue it. As usual, Jenn Fang of Reappropriate has already done a terrific job of outlining it (and its vulnerabilities, as well as Phil’s likely affirmative defense). Go read it. The one thing that she does not highlight is that the Patents & Trademarks Office actually denied Phil a trademark on “Angry Asian Man,” with the response that it was on surface too similar to the existing trademark that Lela had filed on “Angry Little Asian Girl.” It was Phil telling Lela that this had occurred in a lighthearted email that spurred Lela to defend her trademark — something she has every right and responsibility to do (you lose trademark protection if you don’t defend it) but that Phil had no idea would occur with such swift escalation, or with such harsh words and actions.
So this is not a piece about who is “right” in a legal sense — or even a moral sense. It is about what is right, for both parties concerned and for the growth of the larger opportunity in which all of us as involved, active, aspirational Asian Americans participate.
The fact is, that group of people — involved, active, aspirational Asian Americans, who care about our community and want to see it grow — is not yet a very big population. It’s a fragment of a fragment of a fragment, if you will: Out of our 18 million plus number, about a third is recent immigrant and non-English speaking; of the 12 million remaining, over half doesn’t actively identify as Asian American (e.g., they’re more likely to define themselves as “just American” or by their specific ethnicity in most circumstances).
And of the less than 6 million remaining, perhaps half, if we’re lucky, are active and participatory in what one might call the Asian American enterprise — creating and consuming our discrete culture, advancing our political issues, engaged in the larger conversation around who we are, what we do, and where we’re going. So let’s call it 3 million individuals.
That’s by any definition a small pond. It’s the reason why Asian American “mass” mediums — movies, music, and yes, TV — have had such a hard road historically in trying to establish themselves as more than just obligatory niches: To make any kind of a business case, you have to get a ridiculously large percentage of those 3 million people to buy into what you’re doing.
Or you need to grow the market. You can do that by crossing over — appealing to non-Asians. That’s certainly a viable strategy. In fact, it’s ultimately a critical one. But doing so often means compromise, and there is always a necessary conversation over what constitutes too much dilution of our message, too deep a sacrifice of our priorities. Talk to Justin Lin about this. Hell, talk to Eddie Huang.
Which brings us to the other option: Getting more Asian Americans on board. Building a market of our own — of people who support one another’s projects, who are actively engaged with and eager to embrace the unique and vibrant stories and images and voices and ideas that our diverse and dynamic community has always produced, to little response.
That, in a nutshell, is the core of the problem with Lela’s legal threat against Phil. She certainly has a case — at least according to the PTO. (Although the fact is, the PTO is often wrong. Very often. And appeals frequently overturn their initial cursory judgment, with the negative effect that the initial trademark is invalidated. Which means that if Phil had the money and desire to challenge Lela, and he won, Lela would not even have essential protection for her core trademark, Angry Little Asian Girl. That’s something she might have considered from the beginning.)
You see, Lela is the creator of a product. That product is cartoon characters, which she has developed through webcomics and sold as books and branded merchandise and has been trying to extend into other media for years, most notably by trying to develop an animated show for MNET, the U.S. version of the popular Korean music channel. Her product is dependent on awareness and goodwill. Her brand is an interface for that awareness and goodwill, and her tradename is a part, but not the essential part, of that brand. But her business model depends ultimately on her selling stuff, and what she gives away — webcomics — is designed to build awareness and goodwill for the stuff she sells.
Phil, meanwhile, is not the creator of a product. He is the proprietor of a platform. (His forays into things like t-shirts have never been a source of real income, and are produced and distributed via the platform of another Asian American, Ryan Suda’s Blacklava store.) Phil has always made that platform available for free, even when the cost of maintaining it has become onerous — as I mentioned above, there is a cost, and an ever-growing one, when one manages a high-traffic web platform. Even when he chose to add a “business” component to it after being shockingly laid off from his long-time day job as a producer at Yahoo, it was not a business model that most media would choose to embrace: He asked for voluntary support, offering no additional incentive or content from those who provided him with that support. That’s something I actually questioned — I suggested that he add some kind of value, access or content for people who donated to his site, and he basically stated that he didn’t want to make it seem like he was “selling” the site.
It’s worth noting that the donations Phil receives are enough to support the site and maintain his household’s moderate lifestyle (the collateral dig in one message that Lela made at his inability to support his family was very unfortunate) — primarily because it underscores the one thing that Phil does trade in: Goodwill. He has accrued a huge amount of that invaluable commodity, and he has done so by freely giving away access to his platform, his time and effort and his personal support to hundreds, thousands of filmmakers, musicians, writers, nonprofit organizations, activists, fellow bloggers…and comics creators. Including me and the Secret Identities crew. Including, as Lela herself admits, Angry Little Asian Girl.
So here’s the paradox: Lela is the purveyor of a product, which is optimally if not exclusively targeted to a very small group of people — 3 million or so active, participatory, aspirational Asian Americans. Over the course of 14 years, Phil has become the proprietor of a platform that is the single biggest communitarian hub for exactly that 3 million person segment. Lela has chosen to defend her trademark — again, something that she is legally empowered and required to do — by waging an attack on Phil — who has generated a disproportionate amount of goodwill from that 3 million person segment, and who controls the platform that is the largest and most engaged media entity for that 3 million person segment.
Most of you know me as a writer for the Wall Street Journal and other publications, and perhaps as the founder and publisher of A. Magazine. Actually, who am I kidding, most of you now know me as the father of Hudson Yang, star of Fresh Off the Boat.
But my day job is as a market researcher and marketing consultant. That’s what I support my household with — because journalism, in part due to the transition that has made what Phil does possible, is a terrible way to earn a living. In the course of my day job, I advise huge companies and agencies on how to grow their brands and expand their markets — generally by helping them to better understand the realities of today’s digital marketplace, and the new expectations and priorities of the rising Millennial consumer, a group that is more connected, more fluid in identity and more actively in search of new and rewarding experiences than any in history. And larger in size. And more diverse.
Millennials are where the opportunity to expand that 3 million pool comes from, because Asian Americans are the fastest-growing component of the Millennial audience, and because Millennial Asian Americans are more likely to identify as Asian American than any other segment of our extended population. And yes: Because they are digital natives, who punch above their weight in sharing, spreading the word, evangelizing what they love and engaging in a constant conversation about everything in their lives. Get Millennials on board, and you’ve unleashed a torrent of love. Screw them — or screw up in front of them — and you’ll reap the whirlwind.
The fact is, Millennials expect everything around them to be open, interactive and (by and large) free…free as in speech, and free as in beer. The allure of a brand that embraces the sensibility of being “angry” is the aspect of anger that relates to speaking out, being unafraid of consequences, being confident in your POV. That’s what both Angry Asian Man and Angry Little Asian Girl have historically represented, and why they’re so clearly well positioned for connecting with this next new generation.
But actually being angry — engaging in active conflict — often comes across as repellent to Millennials, unless it is attached to a positive cause or cherished ideals. The idea of fighting over brands, over status, over money is alien and offputting. Because they see brands as something to share and remix, status as something that isn’t tied to what you’ve done but what you’re doing, and money as something that you earn to let you do what you care about.
And this fight that Lela has decided to engage in and make public seems almost designed to let the air out of her brand, especially where Millennials are concerned.
Angry Little Asian Girl has always been about standing up to the racist, sexist, classist establishment, kicking privilege in the crotch and running away and laughing. For the creator of Angry Little Asian Girl to threaten lawsuits against a popular blogger and to invoke the need to protect her trademarks, intellectual property and ability to make money in doing so — and to do so publicly, firing “first shots” as it were — undercuts everything her characters represent to her readers. It has put Lela in the position of being seen as the monied aggressor, the Businessperson attacking the Altruistic Communitarian. It has put her in the position of being seen as the silencer, the Censor seeking to squelch the Free Press. It has put Angry Little Asian Girl in the position of being The Man.
None of these perceptions may be true. But in this world, in this time, in this milieu — the Internet — perception is 80% of reality. The other 20% is accrued goodwill — which, again, Phil has accumulated over 14 years of basically giving away and giving back to people around him.
There was never any winning position for Lela in this fight, especially after she expanded her legal threats against Phil to include Wendy Xu, whose “Angry Girl Comics” (no Asian in the title) were almost certainly obscure to most people until the conflict itself became public. She doesn’t even have a free-standing site — she has a Tumblr. And if there’s one thing that is a terrible, terrible idea to do if you’re looking to try to win over the hugely valuable Millennial population, it’s to attack an obscure underdog with a site on Tumblr.
Because if Lela were to look on Tumblr, it is probably the number-one place where her webcomics and GIFs of her characters and quotes from her cartoons are being shared, by Millennials. And because of that, there are about 100 million reasons why waging a war on people in her own community over intellectual property infringement is a very bad decision: She is, by extension, threatening everyone who’s ever reblogged one of her works on the most viral Millennial content platform in existence.
It’s not my place to tell Lela or Phil what to do, but if they’re interested, I do believe that there always was way of redressing Lela’s concerns and defending her trademark without having this turn into the firestorm that it has today. In fact, I think that solution still exists — if Lela and Phil are willing to embrace it.
Lela wants to defend her trademark. In fact, she has to — her failure to do so for over a decade where Phil is concerned actually constitutes a huge vulnerability for her in any future infringements (ones that would likely be more material and significant, I should note).
And Phil wants to continue doing what he has been doing for 14 years, most of it with the tacit approval of Lela: Blogging about Asian America, from an open, passionate and defiant perspective.
Lela has suggested AngryAsianAmerica.com — a tradename that Phil has used and still uses in his web-based talk show with ISAtv — as a compromise, to eliminate the gendered noun that might lead people to confuse her product with his platform. Phil should accept that compromise.
Lela should offer to give Phil a free (as in speech and as in beer) license to use that name in any medium, in any form, and in any region, for any purpose, as a mark of goodwill, with the following caveat: Phil will on any platform that he transacts (e.g., on his blog, on commerce pages for merchandise, and on his webseries landing pages and credits) indicate that Angry Asian America is distinct from and not an affiliated entity or product of Angry Little Asian Girls, Inc., or whatever business entity Lela has created for that purpose, and where feasible linking that to Lela’s site. Both sides have expended money on lawyers; those fees are their own cost of doing business. No money should exchange hands in either direction, now or ever, related to this trademark conflict.
With this solution, Lela defends her trademark — because the license establishes that she has the ability to enforce her intellectual property rights. Phil can contineu to do the important work that he’s doing, while also broadening his platform beyond the sometimes confusing identity of “Angry Asian Man.” If too many feelings have not been harmed, there is even room for collaboration — again, Phil owns a platform and Lela is developing a product; their businesses should not only be coexistent but commensal.
Because the reality is that they are big fish in a very small pond. And churning that pond only causes the water to splash out. It’s our ultimate goal, our essential need, to turn that pond into a lake, and only when we school together rather than consume each other will that be possible. More than anyone, I have a deep and very real sense that we are on the cusp of a magic moment — one in which we are seeing the emergence of an entirely new reality for our community, in which 3 million may well be a trivial number. Fresh Off the Boat now garners three times that audience (including DVR) on a weekly basis (and rising). Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken may soon be joining the party.
We’re going to cross over. It’s happening — and faster than we think. But we need to do it from a position of strength, not weakness. And this conflict between two of our Angriest voices is exactly the kind of sign of fragility and fragmentation that we do not need.