Creators of Emily the Strange assert their character's lack of originality in court

We all remember the moment in high school when we realized the goth kids at the next lunch table — in trying to prove they were oh-so-different by outfitting themselves in black T-shirts and lipstick from Hot Topic — were really just conformists of another kind. Of course, they'd be loath to admit it. That's why it's so interesting that the creators of Emily the Strange — the international goth icon who proclaims that there's nothing more boring to her than copying everyone else — are on a mission to prove she is, indeed, just like every other goth girl in history in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Earlier this month, Cosmic Debris, the Berkeley-based company that owns Emily's trademark, filed what could be called a pre-emptive lawsuit against the creators of an Emily-like character featured in the Nate the Great children's book series from the '70s. The suit asks the court to bar the author and illustrator of the books, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Marc Simont, from taking action against Cosmic Debris or collecting monetary damages.

The trouble began late last year, when the blogosphere started buzzing that Emily bore an uncanny resemblance to Rosamond, a character from Nate the Great. Bloggers pointed specifically to one early, now-discontinued image of Emily from the early '90s in which she appears in her standard black dress with an entourage of black cats and the following text: "Emily didn't look tired or happy. She looked like she always looks. Strange." They compared it to an image of Rosamond with a similar dress and cats with the text: "Rosamond did not look hungry or sleepy. She looked like she always looks. Strange."

At the time, Emily's longtime illustrator, Rob Reger, posted an explanation on the Web saying that he learned about Rosamond years after taking over the creative reins of Emily. "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," he wrote. "Regarding copyright law, there is legally nothing wrong with sharing or implementing a unique variation on a concept."

According to the lawsuit, Sharmat and/or Simont caught wind of the Internet debate — almost two decades after Emily first appeared — and began contacting Cosmic Debris clients claiming the Emily character was infringing on their copyright. Neither Cosmic Debris nor their attorneys would comment. Sharmat would say only that it was a "total shock" to find out about Emily the Strange on the Internet in the past few months: "If I knew about it — I mean, what would you have done?"

The lawsuit reads like a primer on 20th-century goth girls, and submits as evidence pictures of Elvira, Vampira, Wednesday from The Addams Family, Lydia from Beetlejuice, and manga characters. "For many decades," the lawsuit states, "a common cultural motif that has appeared in many creative works involves a woman or girl with long dark hair, possibly bangs, and dark clothing who is associated with the macabre, occult, mysterious, or strange, and is sometimes accompanied by creatures such as bats or black cats."

It seems you've been lied to, Emily the Strange: Your creators say you're as common as it gets.

 
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