For nearly two decades, Rob Reger and his company Cosmic Debris have spent millions of dollars developing the fictional character “Emily the Strange” as a gothic rebel who finds nothing more boring than copying everyone else. Over the years, Emily has evolved from a skateboard design to a media empire which includes clothing lines, comic books, school supplies and has even been featured on electric guitars. Cosmic Debris owns 60 U.S. copyrights registrations and five U.S. trademark registrations, as well as all other rights associated with Emily the Strange. Despite Emily’s image as an individual, recently, critics have claimed that maybe Emily isn’t as unique as she is made out to be.
In late 2008, it was noticed that the first picture of Emily, which appeared in 1991 in conjunction with skateboards, bore a striking resemblance to an image of a character named Rosamond, a young girl seen occasionally in the 1970s book series “Nate the Great”. In this particular image, Emily is pictured with her cats and the text reads: “Emily didn’t look tired or happy. She looked like she always looks. Strange.” The image of Rosamond, which predates that of Emily by more than a decade, shows Rosamond with her cats, and the text: “Rosamond did not look hungry or sleepy. She looked like she always looks. Strange.” Cosmic Debris acquired Emily the Strange from original creator Nathan Carrico after this initial image had been featured on stickers that were distributed at concerts and skateboard shops. The similarity between the characters was brought to Rob Reger’s attention in 1998. Reger claimed he was not aware of the Rosamond character and that he has never drawn inspiration from the Nate the Great series; however, once the similarity was brought to Reger’s attention this particular depiction of Emily was phased out and discontinued by 1998 and the creative team of Cosmic Debris then worked to further distinguish Emily.
Rosamond, who was created by Marjorie Sharmat and Marc Simont is a young girl, with long straight black hair, who wears a black dress and who has four cats. Emily is also a young girl, with long straight black hair, who wears black dresses and who also has four cats; however, Cosmic Debris argues that is where the similarities between the two characters end, claiming that Emily wears only black, is always pale and sullen, and never spends any time with any other children, whereas Rosamond is often rosy-cheeked and smiling, wears dresses of different colours and often plays with other young children.
Interestingly, throughout the almost 20 years that Emily has been openly promoted and publicized, Sharmat and Simont have never contacted Rob Reger or Cosmic Debris concerning a claim to any rights in the image associated with Emily the Strange; however, once the similarity began to be publicized on the internet, Sharmat and / or Simont began to contact businesses who had agreements with Cosmic Debris claiming that Emily the Strange somehow infringes copyrights in Rosamond and the “Nate the Great” series. Cosmic Debris claims that these actions are interfering with their ability to conduct business and on May 18th, Cosmic Debris launched a complaint for declaratory relief requesting that defendants Sharmat and Simont be barred from recovering damages regarding Emily the Strange and that the defendants be restrained from claiming that Emily infringes on their work.
In their complaint, Cosmic Debris also argues that no one, including Sharmat and Simont, should be able to claim rights in the idea of a young girl with long dark hair, pale skin and a short dark dress, who is accompanied by cats since this idea was not created by Sharmat and Simont and has been part of popular culture for decades. The complaint includes several examples of this common cultural motif, including Vampira, Morticia and Wednesday Addams, Elvira, and Lydia from Beetlejuice. Cosmic Debris argues there is nothing illegal about creating a unique variation of a concept, and that Emily is their individual interpretation of “Goth Girl” image. Interestingly, it has been pointed out that Emily’s strong anti-conformist, pro-individuality message is very much at odds with what Cosmic Debris is claiming in their complaint for declaratory relief; the creators of Emily claim that she, a character who has become popular based on the fact that she is different from everyone else, is actually just like every other gothic female character to have been created.
There are bloggers who strongly criticize Cosmic Debris because of the one comparable image of Emily and Rosamond, claiming that Cosmic Debris has ripped off Sharmat and Simont. While the first image of Emily was similar to one particular depiction of Rosamond, that image has long since been discontinued and it is clear that Cosmic Debris has spent 18 years and millions of dollars making Emily and her universe as unique as possible. Furthermore, as shown by several examples, the notion of a “Goth girl” is hardly a novel concept, or a concept unique to Rosamond. Lastly, Sharmat and Simont did not issue any complaints about any possible similarity between Emily and Rosamond for almost two decades. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this complaint and whether Cosmic Debris will be successful in halting Sharmat and Simont’s belated attempt to stop Cosmic Debris from licensing or exploiting Emily the Strange.