Economy

Giant French Puppets vs. Coca-Cola In "Parasitic" Copyright Case

The beverage company's Christmas 2012 advertisement features a gigantic Santa Claus that was inspired by famous French giant characters. The theater company says it's fighting for its soul.

A giant Santa in Coca-Cola's "Open Happiness" TV ad; and one of the Royal de Luxe giant puppets.
A giant Santa in Coca-Cola's "Open Happiness" TV ad; and one of the Royal de Luxe giant puppets.
Sandrine Blanchard

NANTES — This is the story of a creator of giants suing the ultimate beverage giant.

The French street theater company Royal De Luxe, renowned for its gigantic puppets, has filed a lawsuit against the Coca-Cola Company under a little-known legal violation called "parasitism," after a 2012 television commercial for Coke featured a giant Santa Claus puppet.

The case is set to be heard Sept. 4 in the court of Nanterre, near Paris.

The theater company, which is based in the western city of Nantes, accuses the American firm of using for commercial purposes, without its consent, the same kind of characters and same stage design featured in its iconic giant street spectacles.

To understand this multi-episodes legal case, we need to dive into the “magic of Christmas” so dear to marketing specialists. In 2012, during the holiday season, Coca-Cola launched an international advertising campaign called “Open Happiness Christmas 2012.” In this video commercial — broadcast on television and in movie theaters in more than 60 countries, as well as on the Internet where it’s still viewable — a huge gift is delivered by a Coca-Cola truck in the center of a city.

From the box emerges a giant Santa Claus walking around the streets, like a puppet whose threads are pulled by tiny people.

Image usurped

There is no denying that it looks very much like Royal de Luxe’s giant puppets. The Santa Claus, which has the same look and same moves as the company’s creations, seems taken straight from the workshop of the Nantes troupe. And it was produced without its agreement.

Considering itself victim of a “image theft,” Royal de Luxe first filed a complaint for plagiarism, but its theatrical creation is not protected by traditional copyright law. The association's lawyer Frédéric Boucly decided then to take the case before a commercial court on the grounds of “parasitism” and “violation of business ethics.”

The notion of parasitism was introduced in French law during the 1950s by courts to complement the regulations about unfair competition. Acting in a parasitic way, for either a person or a company, consists of copying or drawing one’s inspiration from an economic value, or know-how, of an intellectual work and investments, in order to gain a benefit. In short, the parasite in business is a bit like a leech, but it is ideas rather than blood that gets sucked out.

Parasitism was brought up in 2004 in a case opposing French director Luc Besson and Gaumont film studio against the SFR cell phone operator and Publicis Conseil, an advertising and public relations firm. SFR used Leelo, the main character of the feature film The Fifth Element for a commercial campaign. The director and studio won the case.

David vs. Goliath

Jacques Leroy, president of Royal de Luxe, sees the case against Coca-Cola as a matter of principle. “This looks like a fight of David against Goliath, but we do not want to let this story go," he said. "It is a moral question."

In January 2013, authorities seized from within Coca-Cola’s computers email exchanges that the theatre company says prove their case.

These emails, to which Le Monde had access, clearly show that Coca-Cola and its advertising agencies (especially McCann Erickson) wanted to create a Santa Claus in the style of Royal de Luxe. They wrote to the theater company saying they wanted to create a commercial starring a giant character, and would be "delighted" to cite Royal de Luxe "as the inspiration."

Royal de Luxe summarily rejected the offer, in writing. “We systematically decline any offer of this type, we don’t want to be in the service of a brand," explained Leroy. "To not lose our soul, we only accept sponsorship.”

Coca-Cola then chose to ignore the refusal, going ahead with its project, apparently with full knowledge of the legal risks.

In an email from March 9, 2012, a legal assistant to Coca-Cola Europe warns her marketing colleagues that even though Royal de Luxe does not own exclusive rights on the puppet mechanism, they’ve created the concept and have made important investments in it, and that there would solid grounds for a claim of parasitism.

Beyond considering Coca-Cola a “notoriety thief,” the theater's attorney Boucly thinks their behavior in the case runs “against business ethics” and exhibit "a sense of impunity in flagrant contradiction to their own ethical charter.” That's a reference to the Coca-Cola Company's “Code of Business Conduct,” released in 2009, telling its employees to “act with integrity” to “avoid legal issues.”

No borders online

The beverage giant has appealed the seizure of documents from its computers, while a mediation between the parties failed.

“It is a complicated legal case and philosophically interesting," admits Isabelle Leroux, Coca-Cola Service France’s lawyer. "But the commercial video was not broadcast in France.”

Of course, the Internet and YouTube do not have borders, and Royal de Luxe, since its creation in 1979 by stage director Jean-Luc Courcoult, travels the world with its iconic giants.

The Nantes Company refuses, for the time being, to reveal the amount of damages it is seeking from Coca-Cola. Says Jacques Leroy: “If we win, the money will go towards the funding of a new show or to the creation of a foundation to help young troupes.”

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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