CBLDF Case Files — Kraft Foods v. Helm

In early 2002 Kraft Foods, Inc., contacted cartoonist Stuart Helm, requesting that he cease and desist the use of the pseudonym King VelVeeda. Helm had been signing work using the pseudonym for more than a decade, and he maintained that he was not directly competing with Kraft. So, he concluded that he was within his rights to use the name. Kraft, dissatisfied with Helm’s response, sued him for trademark dilution and infringement as well as punitive damages and legal fees.

After representing himself for several months, Helm contacted the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. According to Burton Joseph, legal counsel for the Fund, the case represented “a two billion dollar corporation trying to push the envelope in restricting the use of anything that resembles or ridicules a trademark…. Kraft’s complaint alleges that Stuart Helm’s website cheesygraphics.com, which averaged about 350 hits a day, by use of the designation ‘King VelVeeda’s Cheesygraphics’ diminished or diluted the value of the Velveeta pasteurized processed cheese food that they sell. The facts seem highly dubious from Kraft’s standpoint that any visitor to cheesygraphics.com would confuse King VelVeeda with Velveeta pasteurized processed cheese food.”

In May 2002 Magistrate Judge Keys granted Kraft’s request for a preliminary injunction. As a result, Helm was required to remove the King VelVeeda moniker from all webpages, metatags, and search engines. Helm complied with the ruling while the Fund filed an appeal.

In September 2002, Kraft approached the Fund regarding a settlement. According to Helm, “We were passing settlement proposals back and forth in October and the settlement was actually reached by the end of November…. [Kraft’s attorneys] took a hard line on everything, saying they were prepared to go back to court no matter how much it cost, but at the same time harassing Burton to settle and being really stingy with the settlement money. I asked them to give the money to the CBLDF, but they refused to do that, so eventually we agreed to give it to the Freedom to Read Foundation.”

Helm relates, “I had a couple of reasons for settling. After losing the preliminary injunction trial I had lost some faith in the justice system. I didn’t want to risk going all the way through the trial and losing because I didn’t want to set a bad precedent. But more than that, I was physically tired of the case. I was tired of going to court, I was tired of being harassed by them, and I wanted to move on. The preliminary injunction already forced me to do a lot of work that made me want to move on. It’s hard enough to stay energized and do art and then also deal with this court stuff. And also, I’ve been doing some activism because of the war on terror and I want to focus my political energy on those issues rather than spending that energy going to court fighting over my nickname.

Fund board member Louise Nemschoff states, “This case highlights some of the ways in which trademark law poses serious traps for the unwary artist. Branding is becoming a more important part of American life and this case is another example of how First Amendment rights are at risk. In this climate, it’s important for the Fund to defend the First Amendment rights of cartoonists to comment on the commercial icons of pop culture. ”

CBLDF Director Charles Brownstein adds, “Stu needed a strong defense against Kraft’s legal bullying and we were able to provide that. We responded quickly, we put up a good fight, and we helped him arrive at a settlement that enables him to go on with his life and art. In the end, this case is another example of how artists’ First Amendment rights are in need of constant vigilance and protection. Trademark and Copyright laws are volatile and constantly changing; in that climate, it’s important The Fund continue to fight on behalf of artists so as to protect the rights the First Amendment affords them.”

In the end, Kraft successfully censored Helm but failed to crush him. “It could have been much worse,” Helm said. “When they started, they gave me 30 days to cease and desist doing anything with the nickname. Now one year later I have five years to sell my artwork, I don’t owe them any money, and a good cause is getting paid.”