Protection of giant duck goes overboard

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The real star of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts has finally arrived. A 40-foot-tall inflatable yellow duck sitting atop a 14,000-pound pontoon moored near Point State Park will have the best view of Pittsburgh's skyline imaginable through mid-October.

There, the mighty yellow duck will bob in the water like some insensate sea monster -- blind, deaf and dumb to its own cultural eminence, temporary though it may be.

If the Pittsburgh Pirates do something equally surreal in October like find themselves hosting several post-season games no one expected of them, the duck will look on impassively through beady and unseeing eyes. It won't matter how many superstitious local baseball fans genuflect irrationally in its direction begging fortune to smile on them.

The latest iteration of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's international Rubber Duck Project is making its U.S. debut in Pittsburgh, of all places. Headline writers who pride themselves on their ability to sling the lowest common denominator puns can barely contain their joy.

And who can blame them? At a time when the eyes of the entire art world are already trained on Pittsburgh in anticipation of the upcoming Carnegie International, a gigantic yellow duck of indeterminate meaning has upended any possibility of high-minded discussion going forward.

There's even a hint of corporate intrigue: The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which sponsors the Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts, has asked the ToonSeum, one of its clients, to stop selling T-shirts featuring a cartoon duck under the Pittsburgh neologism "Quack N'At." The trust argued that the shirts are a violation of the artist's copyright.

Joe Wos, the ToonSeum's founder and executive director, has not only refused to honor a cease-and-desist order -- he's upped the ante by producing and selling even more of the shirts to meet the burgeoning demand. He argues, and I believe has done so persuasively, that yellow ducks have been too ubiquitous in popular culture to be copyrighted by any one artist. (See Anya Sostek's Sept. 22 story, "Giant Rubber Duck Causes Big Flap With Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.")

Having said that, my friend Joe's principled stance really is akin to a Renaissance painter telling the Medici family to take a hike after years of generous patronage. If the Medicis insist that you stop using so much yellow in your murals, well, that's something you might want to consider, especially if you plan to ask them for more money in the future.

Mr. Wos, who is one of the sharpest cultural leaders Pittsburgh has, must weigh the value of having the right to satirize an absurd giant yellow duck when the trust isn't likely to respond well to the nuances of his argument.

The David and Goliath story that Mr. Wos invoked to describe his battle with the trust is interesting, but a more appropriate analogy can be found in the middle of the 20th century.

In 1945, Warner Bros. got wind that the Marx Brothers were planning to shoot a satire of the studio's 1942 classic, "Casablanca." The Warner Bros. lawyers issued a cease-and-desist order as soon as they heard it was to be called "A Night in Casablanca."

In a hilarious letter to the studio's lawyers, Groucho Marx asserted the Marx Brothers' right to use "Casablanca" in the title because, he argued, the names of cities can't be owned by corporations. He then asked Warner Bros., using its own logic, if it had the right to use "Brothers" in its name since the Marx Brothers had been brothers a lot longer.

After a series of increasingly absurd letters, the studio lawyers eventually gave up trying to intimidate Groucho. Meanwhile, "A Night in Casablanca" was released that year, but it did not contain the Humphrey Bogart parody the studio had feared. If Groucho were alive and contemplating a sequel to "Duck Soup," one would hope the trust wouldn't drop him a nasty letter, too.

Still, anyone who has truly bothered to give the giant yellow duck arriving at the Point today any serious thought recognizes that it is a Warhol-like celebration of kitsch more than it is a statement about anything. It has no meaning beyond its sheer scale. Whatever meaning clever entrepreneurs and artists bother to impute to it really is an afterthought.

In fact, a giant duck sitting in a river would be considered a failure if there were no controversy, so Joe is doing everyone a favor.

Meanwhile, the duck's creator should count his blessings. It's only a matter of time before Disney goes after both him and Mr. Wos for infringing upon its copyright of all cartoon ducks until the end of time.

Correction (posted Sept. 27): An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is the ToonSeum's landlord.


Tony Norman:, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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