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November 10, 2009 5:31 PM

L is for Lawyers... and That's Good Enough for Them

Posted by Zach Lowe

Sesame
To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Sesame Street, The Am Law Daily--whose first Halloween costume was Count Von Count--reached out to two lawyers who have been around for much of the show's success: Roger Zissu, a founding partner of Fross, Zelnick Lehrman & Zissu who has done IP work for Jim Henson entities for decades, and Daniel Victor, who just a month ago left Sesame Workshop after 15 years as general counsel and executive vice president. Here are some of their memories of America's happiest street.

On Jim Henson and the founding of Sesame Street:

Zissu: [Henson] went to the University of Maryland and started getting involved with theater and puppets in the 1950s. You hear that now, and it's like, puppets? Do something practical! But Jim saw something that nobody originally saw. He created his own empire.

Victor: Sesame Street was supposed to be a one-year experiment, you know. Jim and Joan Ganz Cooney [ed. note: Cooney is the founding producer of the Children's Television Workshop, now known as Sesame Workshop] just decided to throw their creative stuff out there and share it. That was their collaboration--and it began without any lawyers. They had no lawyers at the start. But then it became a phenomenon. I mean, in six months it was an absolute phenomenon. And then lawyers of one kind or another started formalizing the various relationships. 

On memorable cases or deals:

Victor: There have been a couple of deals I've worked on in the last 15 years that were really transformative. The first would be the acquisition of what we'll call the Sesame Street muppets from Henson Associates [ed. note: Henson Associates, Henson's production company, is now known as the Jim Henson Company]. Just defining a Sesame Street muppet versus a Muppet Show muppet was incredibly difficult. There were of course the stars--Cookie Monster and Big Bird on Sesame Street and Miss Piggy and the like on the Muppet Show. Only one lived in both worlds, and that was Kermit the Frog. Those were easy. But then you had a whole bunch of other characters on Sesame Street that aren't really featured and have no proper names, but we needed them on Sesame Street anyway. There was one character always being tortured by Grover. He had a big blue head. We called him Big Blue Head. He had no name. How do you make sure you get the rights to that character?

So we ended up defining general categories of muppets--muppet species. I made up some of the names. There were "Honkers," which were characters who pushed their noses and their noses would make a noise like a little horn. The Grouches are also a species. We made sure to include muppet family members, such as Elmo's father and mother and any relatives they might have. And even their pets. 

We also had to preserve our rights to the distinctive Sesame Street muppets that were parodies of pop culture figures. We had Bah-Bah Walters and Polly Darton, for instance.

Zissu: People were always ripping off the Muppets or Sesame Street in one way or another. We had to bring many, many claims against infringers. It was usually either people making puppets or porcelain figurines with their likenesses. But I remember one trial when we went against this pair of brothers from Chicago--the Felese brothers. Sesame Street and the Muppets had licensed to one of the major store chains the right to make reversible belts that had pictures of characters like Big Bird, and these guys--the Felese brothers--brought a claim that they had thought of the idea first and given it to Sesame Street. 

Our defense was that they hadn't given us the idea and that it's an obvious idea--putting characters on a belt. Nobody can own that idea. They claimed it was a trade secret. We could never find out what their trade secret was. That was the big secret of the case, it turns out. 

On being involved with Henson and Sesame Street:

Zissu: I only got to go to the offices once or twice, but going there was so fun. They had all of these puppets and characters around everywhere. And every year Jim would throw a big party around Christmas at his townhouse in Manhattan, and it would always be decorated in an interesting way with all the characters. He was a genius, and he is greatly mourned.

Victor: It was just a terrific job. You really can't find a more fun practice, a more diverse practice. It's still a small company, so you can really make a difference. [Ed. note. Victor assures us he had nothing to do with Cookie Monster's recent embrace of fruits and vegetables and his declaration that cookies are "a sometimes food"]. You really can't beat it.

Favorite characters:

Zissu: I always loved the Count. I like his accent. [Slips into vampire voice] Vun, Two, Three...

Victor: Grover. He's a very global, international character if you watch the show. He travels all over the world and wreaks havoc, but always in a well-meaning way.


Photo: Getty Images

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