The War of the Bunnies: How The Tohoku Disaster Ended a Legal Copyright War

Usually I love when cartoon characters fight, like the famous scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit between Donald and Daffy Duck. When the characters are cute and fluffy bunnies, I like it even more, but when it is a vicious court battle over IP infringement, it is slightly less interesting. But this story has a happy ending, so stick around until the end.

You probably all know Miffy, the plucky little bunny who is the star of over 30 children’s books. While she is sometimes thought to be a Japanese character, she was actually created in 1955 by the Dutch artist Dick Bruna. Miffy books have sold over 85 million copies worldwide, not to mention a movie and two TV series. She is nothing short of a global phenomenon.

If you are one of the people who assumed Miffy to be Japanese, it is not without good reason. Hello Kitty, created in 1974 by the Japanese company Sanrio is drawn in a very similar, simplistic style. This style is so similar in fact, that many people confuse the two. Things became even more confusing in 1976 when Sanrio introduced Cathy, a white rabbit bearing an even closer resemblance to Miffy.

Dick Bruna, the creator of Miffy made his feelings clear about Cathy in a 2008 interview with The Telegraph in which he claimed “[Cathy] is a copy [of Miffy], I think. I don’t like that at all. I always think, No, don’t do that. Try to make something that you think of yourself.” Those words may have been a declaration of war, because two years later, in August of 2010 Mercis Media BV, the firm that managed Dick Bruna’s copyrights, filed suit against Sanrio for copyright and trademark infringement. Just three months later a Dutch court ruled in favor of Mercis BV and ordered that San Rio immediately stop all production and distribution of the character Cathy in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Here the heat intensified as Sanrio not only appealed the decision, but filed a counterclaim to completely remove the Miffy trademark all together. It seemed that nothing short of an Earth shattering event could put an end to the nasty legal battle. On March 11th, 2011 just such a disaster occurred, in the form of the most powerful earthquake ever measured in Japan. A quake so large it literally moved nations (Japan’s main island of Honshu slid nearly 2.5 meters) and even shifted the Earth’s axis. In the wake of such a major global catastrophe, the world’ attention and sympathy poured out for the people of Japan. Even Miffy’s little rabbit heart softened.

Dick Bruna and Miffy became very involved in charity work connected to the Tohoku disaster, with Dick Bruna even creating this image incorporating the Dutch flag and Miffy.

Miffy was also used in the project 手を繋ごう or *Let’s Hold Hands *project involving hundreds of famous characters from around the world holding hands in solidarity for the victims of the earthquake.

Three months after the disaster, on June 7th, 2011 Merci Media agreed to drop the suit. In a spirit of reconciliation, Sanrio agreed to drop the Cathy character worldwide. In a joint statement, the two companies announced that they would instead donate the intended legal fees of both firms, an estimated ¥17.66 million yen to disaster relief in Japan. It is slightly disappointing that Sanrio decided to discontinue Cathy, because it would have made for an interesting new crossover book: “Miffy and Cathy’s Day in Court.”