Is Emily the Strange a Copycat?

Thumbnail image for rosamondrb9.jpgBy Lauren Smiley

What if Emily the Strange -- the sullen girl-power icon from Berkeley-based company Comic Debris who claims her own clothing line, comic book series, and soon, a motion picture -- isn't all that odd at all? Accusations are flying around the blogosphere that Emily, whose emo pre-teen angst and message of non-conformity ("There's nothing more boring to her than copying everyone else" reads her on-line bio) may be, in the very creation of her dark soul, a copycat.

Observers have noticed that Emily bears an uncanny likeness to Rosamond, a character from the "Nate the Great" children's book series beginning in the late 1970's by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Rosamond is also a pale girl with long black hair, a short dress, and an entourage of black cats. If that's not enough to cast suspicion on Emily's hyped individuality, there's an early illustration of Emily that even has the same text.

Emily's long-time illustrator Rob Reger responded to the allegations in a letter posted on the finger-wagging blogs last week stating that he adapted the character from the skateboard design of a Santa Cruz-based artist named Nathan Carrico in the early 1990's. Reger states that he learned about Rosamond years later. "We phased out the original skateboard design upon learning of the Rosamond character and worked with the creative team to further distinguish Emily and her universe," Reger writes. "Regarding copyright law, there is legally nothing wrong with sharing or implementing a unique variation on a concept."

But the belated explanation may not be enough to quell the tide of disillusion. Even Emily's Wikipedia entry notes the similarity, citing the blog entries as the source. Emily the Strange publicist Jill Beaverson said the company has never been contacted by the book's publisher or author about the issue. "We've done nothing wrong....Honestly, we were rather hurt by [the allegations]."

It's unclear if the likeness is actually a copyright infringement, says San Francisco attorney Lizbeth Hasse, who represents RDR Books, a Michigan-based publishing company currently being sued by J.K. Rowling in New York Federal District Court to block the release of the company's "Harry Potter Lexicon." The copyright holder would have to prove that Rosamond has a "substantial similarity" to the Emily of the last three years due to the statute of limitations. The fact that the girl with the cats and nearly identical text may meet the "substantial similarity" bar is a moot point since that Emily graphic was apparently discontinued years ago, she says.

"I'm not sure a waif with black hair is original enough to necessarily say it's an infringement of that earlier character," Hasse says. "That's not as similar as it may seem at first blush."

The book's publisher, Random House, did not return calls for comment. Reger's publicist says he's out of the country, but that he agreed to tell us "the real story" upon his return next week. Stay tuned. 

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