A Chicago astronomer’s claim that Middleton-based dollmaker American Girl appropriated the astronomer’s likeness will go forward, a federal judge ruled Thursday, though he dismissed some of the claims made in the lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge James Peterson said he would allow Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer and science presenter based at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, to pursue a false endorsement claim against American Girl related to its 2018 Girl of the Year doll called Luciana Vega.
That claim alleges that by using features in its doll by which Walkowicz is identified — including Walkowicz’s distinctive manner of dress and hair color — it’s implied that Walkowicz has endorsed American Girl’s use of Walkowicz’s likeness.
Walkowicz typically dresses in “space-themed” clothing, wears holographic shoes and has purple-streaked brown hair. The doll also has those features. Walkowicz claims in the lawsuit that American Girl copied those elements for their doll after its representatives saw Walkowicz at public speaking engagements.
A spokesperson for American Girl, a division of toymaker Mattel, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Aimee Clare, a lawyer for Walkowicz, praised Peterson’s ruling.
“Overall, we are very pleased with Judge Peterson’s ruling on the defendants’ motion,” Clare said. “While it is disappointing the state law claims were dismissed, the Court clearly understands the facts here, and we remain confident in our client’s success as we move forward.”
Walkowicz filed a lawsuit in April in U.S. District Court in Madison seeking a cease-and-desist order barring sales of the Luciana Vega doll and accessories, along with unspecified compensatory, punitive and other damages. It also sought the cancellation of American Girl’s Luciana and Luciana Vega trademarks.
In his ruling Thursday, Peterson threw out the federal trademark cancellation demand, along with Wisconsin law claims that the doll violates Walkowicz’s right of privacy and that American Girl was negligent in supervising its employees by failing to prevent them from using Walkowicz’s name and likeness.
But the lawsuit will go forward on a claim that American Girl violated federal trademark law under the false endorsement theory.
Peterson wrote that Walkowicz “plausibly” alleged to have a commercial interest in giving scientific presentations, appearing on scientific television shows and participating in science-related events, and had alleged that confusion about whether Walkowicz had endorsed the doll led to “interference” with Walkowicz’s “professional public persona” and diluted the value of Walkowicz’s name.
American Girl countered that because Walkowicz isn’t selling dolls or accessories, there’s no competition between Walkowicz and American Girl. Peterson said that doesn’t matter.
“Walkowicz has alleged a commercial interest in public speaking and outreach activities, which could plausibly be damaged by the perception that Walkowicz was associated with (American Girl’s) commercial activities,” Peterson wrote.
Walkowicz alleged the creation of the doll created consumer confusion, exemplified by emails and social media messages received about the similarities between Walkowicz and the Luciana doll along with inquiries about whether there had been an endorsement of the doll by Walkowicz.
Peterson also wrote that because Walkowicz is not “toiling away anonymously in a lab” but is becoming a celebrity scientist known to the public, it’s “reasonable to infer that this recognition extends to at least some part of American Girl’s intended market for the Luciana Vega doll.”
By developing a doll with a similar name, hairstyle, clothing and interest in space, after American Girl employees had seen Walkowicz’s presentations, Peterson wrote, “it’s reasonable to infer from these allegations that American Girl intended to evoke Walkowicz’s public image to lend legitimacy and realism to the Luciana Vega doll.”
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