By Darren Garnick
The Boston Herald
Original Publication Date: July 29, 2009
Museum curator Gary Doss doesn’t anticipate his front door being demolished by bulldozer or chainsaw, but he’s taking the threat to behead his most popular exhibit seriously.
Doss runs the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia in California, boasting a display of every cartoon candy dispenser manufactured since 1952. His centerpiece is a 7-foot-10-inch tall plastic snowman that was immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Largest Candy Dispenser. More than 20 times the size of a traditional dispenser, the giant snowman gives customers a snowman PEZ when its head is tilted back.
According to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose last month, the PEZ company wants the snowman “destroyed” and demands that the museum pay unspecified damages for trademark violations.
“Their intention is to shut me down,” says Doss. “The big question is why. We consider this a work of art and we don’t need permission to make a work of art. It’s a one-of-a-kind item and it’s not for sale.”
“If they had any American in them, they would just build a larger dispenser and settle everything right there,” he adds, referring to the Connecticut-based PEZ’s ownership by a Swiss parent company.
“You can’t claim to have the ‘World’s Largest Coke Bottle’ if Coca Cola is not involved,” counters attorney Alan Behr, who represents PEZ in the suit. “If you don’t protect your trademark rights, you’ll lose them.”
Doss has done the copyright dance with PEZ since he opened his museum and gift shop 14 years ago. The business used to be a computer store that was decorated with PEZ dispensers, but made the switch when more customers asked about collectibles than software.
The shop was originally named the PEZ Museum but was changed to the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia to avoid the perception of being officially sanctioned. Doss also changed the “World’s Largest PEZ Dispenser” designation to the “World’s Largest Dispenser of PEZ.”
Now, the PEZ company is challenging Doss’ right to repackage smiley face dispensers with his museum’s name on it and a 2008 election promotion that put Barack Obama and John McCain stickers on “PEZident” tractor trailer trucks. The lawsuit demands that sales figures for these repackaged figures be accounted for to determine damages.
PEZ company CEO Joe Vittoria promises to donate those “unauthorized” profits to charity.
“We don’t care about the money,” he says. “With the giant PEZ dispenser, what would happen if someone put their hand in there and got hurt? Who’s going to get all the complaints?”
Vittoria says he has similar concerns with the safety of the paint used on so-called “fantasy” dispensers which are made by collectors from PEZ products. He admits to admiring the artwork on unauthorized KISS rock star dispensers which are made from PEZ Wonder Woman heads* (widely available on eBay), but says his company is going after anyone who mass produces them.
Doss, meanwhile, refuses to budge.
“Once you own something, you can do what you want with it. It’s the same thing as customizing your car. If you want to paint your car purple, add flames to it, put a ‘Save the Whales’ sticker on it and then resell it, you have the right to do it,” he says.
“Up until the last few weeks, I’ve had the best job in the world,” Doss adds. “But PEZ isn’t going to convince me to give up. I’m not going away.”
*Note: Artists have been selling “fantasy” Michael Jackson dispensers also crafted from the Wonder Woman heads. The “King of Pop” must have been flattered.