High Court Refuses Skippy Trademark Case

The Associated Press
Monday, April 5, 2004; 4:59 PM

ANNANDALE, Va. - For nearly 40 years Joan Crosby Tibbetts has waged a one-woman campaign against the makers of Skippy peanut butter, claiming the name was stolen from her father's popular Depression-era comic strip.

On Monday, Tibbetts' legal battle ended when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear her suit against Skippy's manufacturer, a division of the multinational conglomerate Unilever. But Tibbetts, 71, said she'll continue her battle in the court of public opinion.

"This case involves a very important principle ... 'Thou shalt not steal,'" Tibbetts said Monday. "If this case is allowed to disappear and they succeed in shutting me up, who has won? These big corporations that believe they can just wear others down."

Tibbetts' crusade began in 1965 when the state of New York tasked her with administering her father Percy Crosby's estate. She had not seen her father since 1939, when Crosby's wife divorced him and took the children.

Crosby died in December 1964, after spending the last 18 years of his life in a mental hospital, his cartoon character by then largely forgotten.

Settling the estate was not an easy task. Her father had once been one of the nation's most popular cartoonists. His Skippy strip - detailing the adventures of a mischievous tyke who often tangled with bullies and got the better of them - ran in Life magazine and hundreds of newspapers, reaching the height of its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1931 the feature film "Skippy" starring Jackie Cooper received an Oscar nomination for best picture and won for best director.

Her research led her to the conclusion that the trademark for Skippy peanut butter had been improperly obtained by the Rosefield Packing Co.

She has waged her campaign ever since, a few episodes of success interspersed with endless legal wrangling and frustration.

In 1978 she won a $25,000 settlement from Bestfoods, which had purchased Skippy peanut butter from Rosefield. But Tibbetts said the settlement was with the understanding that Bestfoods would use the original Skippy character in its marketing, which never occurred.

It was also before Tibbetts found documents that she says prove Skippy's manufacturers knowingly obtained their trademark by fraud and covered up the evidence. One document written by lawyers in 1954 as Bestfoods prepared to buy Rosefield suggested that Bestfoods' chief counsel should deny knowledge that the Skippy mark had been fraudulently obtained.

Another victory for Tibbetts, of Annandale, Va., came in 2000 when a federal appeals court overturned a ruling that had barred Tibbetts from claiming on the Internet that she was the legitimate holder of the Skippy trademark.

That ruling, on First Amendment grounds, allows Tibbetts to continue her campaign, telling her story on the Internet and agitating for change and advocating a boycott of Unilever products. And now that her civil claim has been denied, she plans to petition the Justice Department for a criminal case.

She acknowledges crusade's toll - financially, emotionally and physically. She also has been subject to nasty e-mail comments, including one writer who hoped she drowns in a giant vat of peanut butter.

A spokeswoman for Unilever, which has previously said Tibbetts' claims are without merit, did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.


On the Net:

Tibbetts' site: www.skippy.com

Unilever Bestfoods' site: www.peanutbutter.com

Joan Crosby Tibbets holds a plastic bucket that held popcorn showing her father Percy Crosby's cartoon character "Skippy" Thursday, Aug. 16, 2001, in her home in Annandale, Va. The bucket design with her father's copyrighted "Skippy" trademark started a lawsuit against the makers of Skippy peanut butter. Tibbets has been battling to protect her father's "Skippy" copyright against the makers of Skippy peanut butter. Tibbetts' legal battle came to an end Monday, April 5, 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Courtrefused to hear her suit against Skippy's manufacturer, a division of the multinational conglomerate Unilever. Tibbetts says she'll continue her battle in the court of public opinion. (AP Photo/Linda Spillers)