A Seattle artist who designed a line of plush pet toys called “Angry Birds” is suing the company that sold them, saying it cheated her of millions of dollars when it reached a deal with the Finnish company that makes the insanely popular videogame of the same name.
Juli Adams, 45, says she’s never played “Angry Birds.” But she did create a pet toy line called “Angry Birds” for New Jersey-based pet products company The Hartz Mountain Corp. in 2006, and said she retained the rights to her intellectual property even after she licensed her designs to the company.
The addictive birds-versus-pigs videogame launched three years later and has since been downloaded more than 2 billion times. Adams’ lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Seattle, says game-maker Rovio Entertainment wanted to market plush pet toys based on the game – jus t as it has already done with “Angry Birds” golf-club covers, theme parks and innumerable other items – but it couldn’t because Adams’ work already had the U.S. trademark for “Angry Birds” pet toys.
One of her lawyers, Anthony Shapiro, said Tuesday that Hartz apparently pretended to own the “Angry Birds” intellectual property as it persuaded Rovio to grant it exclusive rights to sell pet toys based on the videogame characters. The deal with Rovio has earned Hartz millions of dollars, he said, while Hartz’s last royalty payment to Adams was in 2011, for $40.66. By the end of 2011, the company had paid her a little more than $11,200.
“When I found out they had brokered a deal, I was amazed,” she said Tuesday. “I was shocked that all this had gone on and that I knew nothing about it.”
Renee Barteski, a spokeswoman for Hartz, said the company does not comment on litigation. Rovio did not respond to an email inquiry.
Rovio is not named as a defendant, and Shapiro, of the prominent Seattle-based firm Hagens Berman, said his client is not claiming that the videogame was inspired by or based on her artwork. That said, there are similarities in the designs, including in the colors, eye shape and “Angry Birds” logo font, he noted.
“There are some unanswered questions,” he said. “We don’t know if they independently came up with the idea or if they somehow saw Juli’s creations. At some point we will be in touch with Rovio to obtain information from them.”
In summer 2006, Adams was showing her artwork at a festival in Montana when a vacationing Hartz executive walked up. The executive, who was then the director of marketing for Hartz’s accessory division, asked if Adams would be interested in designing a line of pet toys for the company.
She jumped at the chance because it sounded like fun, she said, and she came up with the “Angry Birds” idea based on the idea of a plush toy that wouldn’t be pleased about being attacked by her cats.
Michael Atkins is a Seattle lawyer who teaches trademark law at the University of Washington and is not involved in the lawsuit. He said this case will likely turn on a close reading of the licensing agreement to determine whether Hartz’s actions were permitted, he said.
“Really this is a breach-of-contract case,” he said.
Adams said she didn’t realize that Hartz was selling “Angry Birds” toys based on the videogame characters until last September, when she received a call from a former Hartz employee alerting her.
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