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 ( 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 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 $18–20,000, 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 search—both in reference to the lawsuit. Kraft hasn't said if a customer complained about being misled by 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 Velveeta—registered by Max O'Shae in 1923—most 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
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