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Hindsight: 34 Years Ago

By Kari Santos | Oct. 2, 2011

Law Office Management

Oct. 2, 2011

Hindsight: 34 Years Ago

Ronald McDonald v. H.R. Pufnstuf

The restaurant giant McDonald's experienced a rare legal setback in 1977, ultimately paying a settlement of more than $1 million after the Ninth Circuit upheld a Los Angeles district court ruling that its McDonaldland television commercials infringed copyrights for the H.R. Pufnstuf children's television show (Sid and Marty Krofft Television Prods. Inc. v. McDonald's Corp., 562 F.2d 1157 (9th Cir. 1977)).

The Krofft brothers' H.R. Pufnstuf, which aired between 1969 and 1974, was set in a fantasyland called Living Island inhabited by moving trees and talking plants, and it depicted the adventures of a boy named Jimmy, Mayor H.R. Pufnstuf, and the villainous Wilhelmina Witchiepoo. It promptly became America's most popular Saturday morning show, with licensing deals for Kellogg's cereals, the Ice Capades, and various toys, comics, and lunch boxes.

When the McDonaldland commercials appeared, they featured characters and a fantasy world strikingly reminiscent of those in H.R. Pufnstuf, and the Kroffts sued. The defendants argued the characters weren't exactly the same: Witchiepoo was a witch, for example, while the Hamburglar in McDonaldland was, well, a sirloin thief. Mayor McCheese looked and acted like Mayor H.R. Pufnstuf, but he wore a diplomat's sash rather than a cummerbund.

The trial court didn't buy it, finding that the defendants had wrongfully appropriated the look and feel of the show and awarded damages based upon infringement and proof of substantial similarity. (See 1983 WL 1142 (C.D. Cal.).)

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is worth noting that McDonald's fast-food competitor Burger King also developed a fantasyland, dubbed Burger King Kingdom, but managed to present new and distinct characters such as the milkshake Sir Shakes-A-Lot, bad guy Duke of Doubt, and The Wizard of Fries.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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