The Pirates of The Intellectual Properties

Haresh Shah


Soon, Playboy was no longer just a magazine. There was Playboy Mansion and were Playboy Clubs and Playboy Bunnies and even Playboy theater and Playboy movies and television show Playboy After Dark, hosted by Mr. Playboy Hugh M. Hefner himself. And then there were Playboy products. The first noticeable were air fresheners dangling from the rear view mirrors, mostly of the cabs, auto decals donning black and white image of the by now ubiquitous rabbit head, key chains. Mostly cheap products. Most of them unauthorized and unlicensed. When you have a fertile swath of land, and the year is good and it rains and rains and rains, what happens? Suddenly, you have shrubbery and uncontrollable weeds. Nothing you can do. This was not in the plan. Literally, you see your rabbits multiplying at the pace you never in your wildest dream imagined. No way to stop them fornicating and swelling in population unless a natural disaster the scale of Malthusian theory of population were to strike. You can’t keep your act together to keep it all under control, let alone begin to reign them from growing greater.

Just the kind of situations trademark sharks around the globe are waiting for. While Hefner  decided not to put the month and the year on the cover of its first issue, sporting now the iconic black and white photo of Marilyn Monroe, for the fear that he may have to leave it on the stands for much longer, the copies of his pioneering publication flew off the stands like freshly baked soft pretzels at the Munich hauptbahnhof.

After the two mutually beneficial and highly successful back-to-back contract negotiations in São Paulo and Buenos Aires, my boss Bill (Stokkan) and I make a side trip to Córdoba to deal with the tricky business of trying to “buy back” our own trademarks. Something I have had only a limited knowledge of. This is our first trip together and being together 24/7 for several days has given us a unique opportunity to bond and to observe up close each other’s businesses. Now he has been our division’s head already for two years, but up until now he has left me alone with minimal of supervision and interference. Now he feels comfortable with the business of publishing and even so, he still leaves the details of making of the magazine to me, he has started to gingerly giving me his input into the business and the marketing side of what I do. Not only do I appreciate his invaluable input, but over the dozens of long drawn out meals we have shared, we have become more like partners in crime.

On our first outing together, he has brought his unique perspective and pragmatism to our two most delicate make it or break it negotiations his mantra. Let not the minimum guarantee become a minimum penalty. Both Roberto Civita in Brazil and Alberto Fontevecchia in Argentina are floored when Bill lays down the deals which screams WIN-WIN if successful and if not as much, Playboy would share in the risk. Sound fair?

After we’re done with the publishing business, we venture on to deal with the local problems of Bill’s core business – which is licensing and merchandizing of products bearing Playboy logo and other trademarks. That takes us to the second largest city of the country – Córdoba, 435 miles (700 kilometers) north west of Buenos Aires. It is the geographical center of Argentina and is proud of its colonial charms and the history. But from the little that we saw, I remember it to be dilapidated and dusty, almost a depressing town.

Before boarding the plane in Buenos Aires in the afternoon, we breakfast with Alfredo Vercelli of Editorial Atlántida, who has license to produce and market Playboy branded stationery in Argentina and the surrounding countries. We also touch basis with our local trademark attorney Julia Elena Tellechea over the lunch. Armed with her input, we land in Cordoba.

We are picked up by Carlos Rodriguez Pons – the holder and the king of Playboy trademarks in Argentina and its surrounding territories in the multiple categories, that exclude the magazine itself and other related publications and the paper products – but the list of other products he has registered is impressive. How well he is doing with them is questionable. But there are telltale signs in the car he picks us up in. It’s Mercedes Benz 350 SLC. Obviously, I barely manage to squeeze into the back seat of this what once must have been a fleshy sportswagen. Not any more. Soon as he puts the car in the gear, we hear the killer breaks – the metal grinding on the metal. The windshield has a major crack going across. For whatever reasons, he is unapologetic and oblivious to what we may observe. He takes us to his house. The furniture seems to have seen better days. The walls weather beaten and sun bleached. He shows us around his factory, the shopping mall he owns and a rental apartment complex. All of the entities are named PLAYBOY. He is the Mr. Playboy of the region.

‘I have never worked for a living,’ he muses.

Like multitudes of others around the globe, when he saw Playboy name and its logo rising, having become the second most recognized in the world after Coca Cola, Carlos Rodriguez promptly and smartly and swiftly registers the name with its logo and the rabbit head in as many categories as he can and then begins to license it to the regional merchandizers. Since he is the one who has legally registered and therefore the owner of the trademarks, Playboy would have no rights to do the same.

Once realizing the potential, Playboy began to file for registrations all around the world – but would be denied their application in the territories and products categories that were already registered by a third party. Most of the third party registrants are small time hustlers. They neither have a know how nor money or infrastructure to do anything with it. While some of them succeed licensing the trademarks they have registered to the legitimate and serious producers and merchandizers and collect royalties, however, they have no support system to nurture the licensees. Everyone knows that the products they are making or distributing are not legit – actually majority of them are of inferior quality. They might as well be the rip-offs from one of the third world countries or in those days maybe the contrabands from Hong Kong and China.

The best hope for the third party registrants is to be able to “sell back” those trademarks to the legitimate creators and the owners. And in the most cases, they succeed. The originators buy them back, if for nothing else, then to keep the inferior and illegitimate products off the shelves. And to preserve their reputation for the highest quality guaranteed by their superior standing within the industry.

We arrive in Córdoba late in the afternoon and allow our host to take us around and show us his empire. At the end of the day, Carlos Rodriguez takes us out for the traditional Argentine barbecue at Asado Don Polidoro. We talk and we listen. The great strategist that Bill is, he doesn’t utter a word about the business until it’s midnight. He is never the first one to blink. Every extra word is said, every expression shown on the face of the other, he studies and analyses them. From the day we spend with Carlos Rodriguez Pons, it’s clear to us that the man isn’t doing well with the Playboy trademarks he has registered. Then the question remains – what would those trademarks by now so abused and downgraded would be worth? How long would it take to legitimize them in the eyes of the producers and the customers? At what cost? Once lost, you can’t build back the reputation just like that – if ever.

As Asado Don Polidoro begins to roll up its doors, Bill strikes a deal with Mr. Playboy of Argentina – which is non-committal as can be and based on multiple “ifs”. Because Bill has already figured out by then that buying back of our trademark in Argentina at the very best would be a losing proposition. And so he lets it be. I am not sure if there was any follow up or not, other than the perfunctory pleasant thank you letter or two.

Long forgotten, just out of curiosity, I googled our friend Carlos Rodriguez Pons. He is still well and alive and still the “proud” owner of those Playboy trademarks. His company Playboy Internacional SA has three employees – which I presume are himself, his wife and their son. How well is he doing? I can’t tell from his web page. Like everything else featured on the internet the varnish shines brighter on the cover. Whether the inside pages are worth reading – I don’t feel like finding out. But one thing you’ve got to give Sr. Pons is the admiration for his perseverance and ability to survive – now for almost four decades.

© Haresh Shah 2015

Illustration: Jordan Rutherford


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On Friday, July 3, 2015


It never ceases to amaze me how people react to the fact that I worked for Playboy. They roll their eyes, wink and smile. Make a nervous comment, must be fun to work for Playboy. And then there are the ones who wrinkle their noses – Playboy!!! You can’t help but notice on their faces apparent disdain and/or disapproval. Though majority of them have never as much as flipped a single page of the magazine, they have a strong opinion of the publication.