USA: Skippy to remain with Bestfoods, but Tibbetts gains moral victory

10 October 2000 | Source: Clare Harman

Following decades of angry words, embittered websites and legal wrangling, a district court judge in Virginia has finally ended all the Skippy shenanigans by ruling against US food giant Bestfoods on what has become a landmark case for free speech advocates.

During the 1920s, Percy Crosby created Skippy, a cute tyke whose cartoon strip became hugely popular with its US audience. During the 1960s however, while Crosby was spending 16 years in a New York mental Hospital, Skippy was also revered as a revenue-perking trademark by a bankrupt peanut butter company, which was later acquired by Bestfoods.

Since then, the artist's daughter, Joan Crosby Tibbetts, now 67 and president of Skippy Inc, has launched a tenacious crusade against the foods company, aided and abetted by her web site, "Thanks to the advent of the Internet," she writes, "the lawful Skippy heirs can reveal what the food pirates (Bestfoods) and their army of attorneys concealed from the courts and the public for decades… Bestfoods' legal department, apprehensive of being exposed on the Internet as the naked Emperor, has recently changed its website about its Skippy history, and compounded its conduct by engaging in wilful wire fraud, a federal crime."

She wants Skippy back, adding more plainly that the "famous Skippy trademark and its valuable goodwill was pirated by a bankrupt peanut company, which later merged with a Fortune 500 company, making a fortune in illicit sales under the Skippy brand name." The accusations that Skippy was illegally coveted unsettled Bestfoods, and the company has been fighting the case in law courts for many years to attempt to force Tibbetts to remove her condemnations from her website.

In 1986, after she tried to licence a Skippy brand caramel corn, Tibbetts was barred by court order from suggesting "in any manner" that she was solely allowed to use the brand in food products marketing. She temporarily edited her site, but had reposted the censored portions even before the latest decision was actually announced.

Earlier this year, the forth US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the previous judge's court order, saying that it did not meet federal procedural standards and that it raised First Amendment questions. Bestfoods refined its arguments and went back to court in Virginia, but US District judge Albert V Bryan Jr denied the food giant's motion.

The food firm's lawyer Mitchell Frank, of the trademark counsel, was anxious to stress that the latest decision does not "in any way undercut our rights to the Skippy trademark - that was not an issue in this proceeding." Nor, he argues, is Bestfoods' decision against future action due to the company's recently approved sale to Unilever. Frank continues: "The validity of our rights to the Skippy trademark remains unaffected by this." Tibbetts was overjoyed, however. "This was a tremendous defeat for them," she commented.

Bestfoods' last words were stoical. Frank flatly stated: "We have decided not to appeal. As the judge said, in essence, enough is enough."

For more information on the courtcase, supporters of Joan Tibbetts have written the website: