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Japanese Co. Fights To Use Kewpie

June 17, 1998 GMT

TOKYO (AP) _ The battle has begun. The gloves are off and the cute little wings are all aflutter.

Kewpie, that iconic cherub with the wide-eyed stare, is at the center of a lawsuit pitting a major Japanese food maker against a local Kewpie fan club leader, who claims to have exclusive rights to the doll.

Kazuo Kitagawa, who acquired the Kewpie doll’s Japanese copyright in May from the Missouri-based Rose O’Neill Foundation, is demanding $7 million in damages from _ who else? _ the Q.P. Corp.

Q.P., by the way, is no babe in the woods.

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It’s Japan’s biggest producer of mayonnaise and salad dressings, and has used the doll as its mascot and namesake since well before Kitagawa was born.

Even so, Kitagawa, who runs a doll museum and toy shop in Japan, says he is only trying to do right by Kewpie.

``Our aim is to promote the true Kewpie,″ Takashi Yamamoto, Kitagawa’s lawyer, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Yamamoto said the suit was filed with the Tokyo District Court on Tuesday and seeks damages equivalent to $698,000 per year in royalties over the past decade. That is the maximum allowed under the statute of limitations in Japan, he said.

Rose O’Neill, who died in 1944, created the original Kewpie doll, which debuted in the December 1909 edition of the Woman’s Home Companion magazine before becoming an international hit. Winged versions of the Kewpies are particularly prized by collectors, although the earth-bound models are perhaps better-known.

Q.P. is standing by its chubby mascot.

Company spokesman Masafumi Taga said Q.P. has the legal right to the Kewpie figure that adorns bottles of its best-selling mayonnaise, and cites a 73-year old trademark granted in Japan.

``All Kewpies are not the same. There are many Kewpies,″ said Taga. ``Kewpies are in the public domain.″

That remains a matter for the courts to decide.

Japan has long been a haven for outlaw T-shirts, lunch boxes and coffee cups featuring copyright protected characters. Lawsuits are rare, but not unknown.

Bandai Co., the Japanese company that makes the ``Tamagotchi″ electronic pet has recently filed suit against firms selling cheap imitations.

In another case, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled last year against a company that improperly used ``Popeye″ on its neckties in a complicated case filed more than a decade earlier by King Features Syndicate Inc.

The O’Neill Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Industrial Bank of Japan Ltd., which also uses a Kewpie doll symbol, in February, and a ruling is pending.

And that is not the end of the Kewpie quarrel: Kitagawa’s lawyers have threatened legal actions against four manufacturers of the plastic dolls in Japan unless royalties are paid.

But their window of opportunity for collecting any damages is closing. Lawsuits often take years to wind their way through Japan’s notoriously slow court system, and the original patent on the Kewpie doll that Kitagawa acquired expires in 2005.