Note: Stuart Helm settled out of court with Kraft. He will no
longer operate under the name King VelVeeda. In exchange for giving
up his nickname, Kraft agreed to donate $10,000 to the charity of
Helm's choice. (In a great bit of chutzpah, he suggested himself.
Kraft didn't go for it. Instead, it went to a right to read foundation).
Helm was also given three years to sell all his work bearing the
VelVeeda name, rather than the original month Kraft asked for.
As a journalist, I'll continue to run this article on my site
in accordance with my First Amendment Rights. I also hope that the
Kraft food company takes a long, hard look at what they and their
lawyers have done, especially in terms of the profits and consumer
goodwill they fought so hard to protect. How could this have been
worth the expense paid by that company and, I might add, the taxpayers?
You've lost more than one customer forever, chums. Think about
that, until the next company restructuring.
Uneasy lies the head that wears King VelVeeda's crown.
That head belongs to Chicago cartoonist Stuart Helm, the King's alterego,
currently being sued by the Kraft corporation for copyright infringement
on the name of their Velveeta cheese spread. Helm, who has produced
comics, custom art, and a Web site (www.cheesygraphics.com)
under the VelVeeda name for 17 years, protests that it's just a meaningless
nickname, a carryover from his teen punk years in Boston. The crux
of Kraft's complaint seems to be Helm's Web site, which features more
cheesecake than cheese, Helm's sexually oriented art, and links not
always palatable to MOR tastes.
Kraft is invoking the controversial Trademark Dilution
Act of 1995, which states in part: "The owner of a famous mark
shall be entitled...to an injunction against another person's commercial
use in commerce of a mark or trade name, if such use...causes dilution
of the distinctive quality of the mark..."
Kraft's lawyers charge that Helm's employment of the
name VelVeeda to "sell various types of adult-oriented, offensive,
and unsavory merchandise and services to the public" violates
Kraft's trademarks and reputation, causing the corporation "to
suffer ongoing irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy
at law." Lack of adequate remedy has not prevented Kraft from
seeking "up to three times the Defendant's profits or Plaintiff's
damages or Plaintiff's attorney's fees, or both." The charges
and damages seem leadfooted since Helm estimates that, in a good year,
cartooning earns him about $1820,000, on a bad one, about ten
grand. Unable to afford an attorney, conducting his own defense has
turned valuable drawing time into court time. He apologized for furiously
sketching during our interview, in order to meet a deadline.
Helm isn't sure how Kraft found his site. Only recently
does his nickname and Kraft's appear together in a Google searchboth
in reference to the lawsuit. Kraft hasn't said if a customer complained
about being misled by Cheesygraphics.com. In his experience, Helm
has never received an e-mail, phone call, or letter wherein someone
confused him or his site with Kraft and its products. "They're
creating an association, by bringing this to trial, that was never
there," says Helm. "It's getting to the point where they're
going to have to petition the court to get me to stop using the word
Kraft on my Web site, because I'm talking about the case. If
they stop me from using the word VelVeeda... I can't, therefore,
talk about the case in the same terms any other reporter could...
Maybe then I'll have to use two asterisks instead of two e's in my
name when I report on it."
Who owns language is the Philosophy 101 question. Double
entendre abounds on Helm's site. There, "cheese" and "cheesy"
rarely refer to milk curds, and more often to sex and enjoyably lame
pop culture. At first blush, it is obvious Helm doesn't sell cheese
spread, and that Kraft is not purveying porn alongside Claussen pickles
and Stove-Top stuffing.
Etymologically, Helm posits that Velveetaregistered
by Max O'Shae in 1923most likely stems from "velveteen,"
which comes from the word "velvet" by way of the French
"velu" and Latin "villus," both meaning shaggy.
With his wild hair and beard VelVeeda then seems more "villus"
than Velveeta. Elsewhere on the Web, one finds more blatant appropriations.
A Google search for Velveeta turns up a comedy club, several bands,
and an unflattering Internet term. As spam is to e-mail, velveeta
is to excessive cross-posting across newsgroups. "VelVeeda"
does not readily come up in the first 200 hits.
"It's not really about trademark or they would
go after these guys. It's that they don't like the content of my Web
site..." states Helm. "Using my own nickname [of] 17 years
is intrinsically part of the content of my Web site. My artwork is
signed with it. I can talk about myself in the third person. I have
every right to use my own nickname. I'm not selling a product called
Velveeda.I don't have a company called Velveeda."
Helm's bank won't even allow him to cash checks made out to the King.
Appeals from Helm for proper legal representation have
generated a few leads. The Comic Book
Legal Defense Fund and Lawyers for the Creative Arts are potentially
interested. Another anonymous lawyer has graciously offered legal
advice over the phone. For now, the King remains without counsel
"It's depressing, to be honest," Helm states
flatly. "At this point I'm just one person. I am, literally,
one person showing up to court and defending myself, my nickname,
of all fucking things, against this giant, huge corporation... It's
overwhelming at times."
A shorter version of this article appeared in New
City, May 9, 2002
®2002 Dan Kelly
Contact Mr. Kelly