Nijntje/Miffy may sniff cocaine and be a terrorist has said a Dutch judge today in a courtcase where the creator of ‘Nijntje het copyright konijntje’ (Miffy the copyright rabbit) Dick Bruna (1927 -) had asked the court to forbid several Nijntje impersonations on the web. Dirk Bruna – for decades – is the Dutch champion and pioneer of licensing and royalties, censoring whatever urban culture derivation of his creation. Thus he has for long become the terminator of the offspring of his own drawing board creation, or, was it the late designer and founder of the merciless copyright exploitation bureau Mercis B.V., Pieter Brattinga (1931 – 2004) that has aborted most of the unwanted progeny of this imaginary rabbit? Pencil and eraser are often held in one hand.
You can find the full text of the court decision on-line in PDF format (in Dutch) on this link. After the formal pages of this court case that has been dragging on since January 2010, there is a very instructive discourse on ‘auteursrecht’ (author rights), ‘merkrecht’ (trade mark rights) en ‘persoonijkheidsrechten’ (moral rights). Three levels of complaints ranging from the commercial to the moral have been scrutinised by the judges. The defence of the internet provider claiming that the exception in author law that allows for parody, caricature and pastiche should be honoured over the commercial and moral claims, won out in the end. The ‘moral ownership rights’ claimed by Dick Bruna summarised in his statement to the court “Nijntje is van de kinderen en daar moet je van afblijven” (Miffy is of the children and one should stay away of that), did not find a willing ear with the judges as they concluded that Dick Bruna to them appeared as someone “who does not at all tolerate any parody on his creation (literary the text says his ’brain child’).” [page 16 of the Court Decision of September 13 2011]. There is no doubt that the imaginative world Bruna has been designing for most of his live is a world without conflicts, a peaceful world where life is pleasant and light. His worldwide success with this creation is a testimony of how much such a harmless environment is appreciated.
Venturing into the world with such a set of intentions does not guarantee that his books and other products will be always read in the way he has intended. Bruna may have the legal rights to his creation but these do not include the rights to other peoples minds. This court decision points out to Dick Bruna that characters of fiction in order to be communicated need an action by a reader to be reproduced. No writer, visual artist, designer, architect, musician name it, will be able to fully control how that second part of all our mediated communications, will be handled by the reader, the listener, the audience … The only full control is to keep one’s creation to oneself and even that may prove at one moment or another, not a complete safe undertaking. There are many examples of dissatisfied artists that have destroyed their own creation before even communicating them to the world outside. A creation that is communicated will necessarily be open to different interpretations and caricature, persiflage, pastiche and parody are part of that. The Socratic dictum of the defenceless text and artwork even holds for his creation of little rabbit Nijntje:
For this, I conceive, Phaedrus, is the evil of writing, and herein it closely resembles painting. The creatures of the latter art stand before you as if they were alive, but if you ask them a question, they look very solemn, and say not a word. And so it is with written dis courses. You could fancy they speak as though they were possessed of sense, but if you wish to understand something they say, and question them about it, you find them ever repeating but one and the self-same story. Moreover, every discourse, once written, is tossed about from hand to hand, equally among those who understand it, and those for whom it is in no wise fitted ; and it does not know to whom it ought, and to whom it ought not, to speak. And when misunderstood and unjustly attacked, it always needs its father to help it ; for, unaided, it can neither retaliate, nor defend itself. [The Phaedrus in the 188 edition as can be found on the Internet Archive]
So in Socratic sense Dick Bruna – as the father – stood up in court and defended his Nijntje, called upon the state to acknowledge his ownership of this created figurine, which the court did without hesitation, but as Nijntje is not a real living person that can claim to have been insulted, and as Nijntje is just a figurine that has been reproduced a millionfold, the judges concluded that the creator must as a consequence of this commercial, social and cultural embedding of his brainchild, also be able to accommodate forms of social and cultural intercourse that lay outside of his intentions. This is how I read the court’s decision. If there had been commercial intentions of making and selling unauthorised copies of whatever Nijntje product, the decision of the court would have been a different one.
Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Tintin, Suske and Wiske (Belgian comic book figures), Asterix and Obelix, Fritz the Cat and so on, they have all been appropriated and a good international bibliography of pastiche comics will be a fat book indeed. On the other hand one can say that mythical figures as communicated in a process of constant change, coming down to us in millennia through lore and narration have been exploited and usurped by the modern media industry with hardly anybody standing up and defending the original intentions of these human heritage beings.
The Dutch web site “Mijndomein - owned by punt.nl B.V. – was the one that resisted the threats of the lawyers operating in the name of the Miffy creator to take away parodies using the Miffy rabbit or face court. Today they had a web page rejoicing their success in court: “Mijndomein wint hoger beroep: Parodieën op Nijntje zijn toegestaan” (MyDomain wins appeal case in court, parodies of Nijntje are allowed). On their web site one can find some picture examples of deviating Nijntjes, like the “nijn eleven” cartoon that twists the Dutch name of Miffy – Nijntje – via its stem ‘Nijn’ that when pronounced in Dutch sounds like the English ‘nine’.
The cartoon, in Dick Bruna style, shows a small airplane with two rabbits approaching a building. Whether one likes these ‘detournements’ (twisted images) or finds them bad taste, is not the question here. What is at stake is massive multiplication of imagery of an imagined being (Nijnjte) on the one hand, and, on the other, the attempted prohibition to have such a being – that became part of popular culture – function in any other form as sanctioned by the creator and copyright holder. In the case of Dick Bruna the protection of his copyright, which has often been exercised in an understandable way, did not know where stop. He and his lawyers failed to notice that they had moved from the domain of property rights into the domain of censorship, driven there both by intolerance and commercial interest.
The town of Utrecht has even a Dick Bruna Museum, a Nijntje Square and a Nijntje statute. The imagined figurine of Dick Bruna has moved into public space in such a way, that it should be open to interventions of the same public that has been exposed to it. Pure passive consumption of entertaining figurines can not be enforced. People may see these fancies in their own way, quiet different from the intentions of their creator and copyright holder. The operations of the copyright owner of a children’s fancy may have some resemblance with the institution of the Catholic Church that defines and protects the stature of all “their” holly figures. Canonising religious symbols is a strong human trait, also in the practice of other religions or political ideologies. Papal councils have fought for centuries over how The Lord, Angels and Saints should be depicted. Iconoclasts have ravaged temples and churches to prove their point, but replicating similar strategies for a rabbit intended for children and those who like to linger on to their childhood, seems to be out of proportion. Dick Bruna’s best defence would be to act as most politicians have learned to do, be honoured to be mocked, imitated, persiflaged, take a pride into the caricature of his own creation, made by others.
Nobody seems to be out to pull down the statute of Nijntje in Utrecht and many would enjoy the Dick Bruna Museum more when it would included also well documented cases of the commercial contracts he made, court cases he fought and a whole series of contextualised examples of the abuse of Nijntje. Only then Nijntje would start to speak - to say it with Socrates - as though she were possessed of some sort of sense.
*) source of strapped in kid in front of Nijntje on television screen = http://klausener.nl/fotos/nijntje-is-de-bom/