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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
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Buckyballs May Infringe on Late Inventor’s Name

(CN) - The creators of magnetic desk toys called Buckyballs cannot sideline publicity rights claims from the estate of the late master inventor Buckminster Fuller.

Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller is best known for creating the geodesic dome. He held 28 patents and wrote 28 books on a wide range of subjects.

Six months ago, his estate filed a federal complaint in San Jose, Calif., against Maxfield & Oberton Holdings, the creators of Buckyballs, a set of 216 rare earth magnets arranged in a cube that can be rearranged into other shapes.

Maxfield & Oberton allegedly tout Buckyballs as the world's most popular desk toy. Fuller's estate says the company even acknowledged in a press release that its toy was "inspired and named after famous architectural engineer and inventor, R. Buckminster Fuller."

Maxfield & Oberton had permission from the estate just once to use Bucky's likeness in 2011 for a commemorative edition of Buckyballs, whose profits were donated to the nonprofit Buckminster Fuller Institute, according to the complaint.

The estate seeks an injunction and damages for unfair competition, invasion of privacy, name appropriation and unfair business practices.

Maxfield & Oberton moved to dismiss all causes of action, claiming among other things that Buckyballs are named after a carbon molecule, not Buckminster Fuller.

In 1985, scientists named a newly discovered molecule Buckminsterfullerene after its resemblance to a geodesic dome.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh held a hearing on the issue last week and upheld most claims Monday.

Fuller's estate cannot advance common-law misappropriation claims name because Fuller is dead, and the California Supreme Court has held that that cause of action does not apply, according to the 17-page ruling.

But Koh rejected claims from Maxfield & Oberton that use of the name "Bucky" has First Amendment protection and is not directly derived from Fuller's full name.

"The simple use of a name is not an act of expression in the way that the creation or alteration of an image is, and a name cannot be transformed while remaining recognizable in the way that an image can," Koh wrote. "Defendant has not explained, and the court cannot see, how this test could be applied to an individual's name when his image is not also involved."

There is no legal authority that grants First Amendment protection for the use of a celebrity's name to sell an unrelated product, the decision states.

At this stage, the estate has properly stated its claims that the toy company used Bucky's name and identity to increase sales, and that the company's actions suggested sponsorship or endorsement by Fuller.

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