19 June 2009

Taster's Choice: Love That Aroma, And Those Image Use Rights

2092.Remember a while back, when the guy who did the "Yahoo-ooo!" for the Yahoo! internet portal TV jinglette sued Yahoo! because while he consented to allow Yahoo! to use it, he didn't consent for them to use it that widely or something like that?

IP has been something of a kicking ball ever since it's become so damned easy to find, link, and repurpose content. Bloggers and the wired class can suddenly find themselves on the wrong end of a DMCA takedown notice (this has even happened to me, as meagre a blogger as I am).

Today I stumbled on an example that comes right out of the textbook and serves to prove that it doesn't matter how big or small you are, even the big boys can be less than careful. Everyone who's been anywhere near a jar of instant coffee (yes, even here in Portland we have some) has seen Nestlé's legedary Taster's Choice brand of freeze-dried instant. For a long time, a part of the brand look and feel has been the look of a beatifically-satisfied coffee-drinker's face basking in the steamy aroma of a well-made cup of coffee.

Regardless of what one thinks about instant coffee (I'm from Portland – you can guess) the emotional chains the look is pulling are unmistakable to anyone steeped in the idea of brand-fu. The palette of rich warm colors connotes comfort and the whole approach connotes style and luxury (once again, with instant coffee, your mileage will vary). The satisfied look of the coffee drinker only serves to seal the satisfaction deal. The popularity of Nescafé and Tasters Choice only serve to prove the point.

But, as pointed out by Sarah Gilbert here, Nestlé's marketing team hit a bit of a snag:

Russell Christoff has the strong features and gorgeous dark eyebrows of a model. His hair is grey now, but he's still just as handsome as he was when his hair was still dark brown, back in 1986 and living in Canada, when he posed looking lovingly into a cup of Taster's Choice coffee "as if he enjoyed the aroma."

But, after the photo shoot, he heard nothing more from Nestle. He gave the company permission to use the photo in Canada, but not elsewhere. The photo was stuffed into the archives. Until 1998, when a Nestle employee was searching the archives for just the right "Taster" to portray the brand and chose Christoff's almost romantic photo. It's too bad Christoff doesn't actually enjoy the aroma of Taster's Choice, at least not enough to drink the stuff, because it wasn't until 2002 that he saw his own, younger face staring back at him from the shelves of instant coffee crystals -- in California, where he was working as a teacher.
Mr Christoff did the American thing. He sued.

It's been working through the courts for a while now; originally the courts awarded Mr. Christoff over USD$15 Million, but that got overturned, and now it's on appeal. The image was used from 1998-2003. Mr Christoff could die a rather wealthy (and apparently still good-looking) old man (what a catch he'd be for the MOTAS, yes? Alas, we have no word on his marital status). The Tasters Choice brand itself has moved on as well, sporting a new, more sophisticated look that depends on a human face not at all.

It just goes to show you, though, and illustrates the point, that no matter how big you are, you can still get into copyright trouble over images. It's so easy to do these days.

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