The New York Times
PRAGUE — Along the historic streets on the periphery of the famed Old Town Square here, tourists stroll past dozens of souvenir shops, many displaying the same stuffed toy of a wide-eyed and cheerful-looking mole.
The gray-bellied character may not mean much to Westerners, but for many in Central Europe and elsewhere, the animal is easily recognized as Krtek, a warmhearted cartoon mole whose adventures have dazzled children for 60 years.
“It was something on TV that was completely different from the others,” Ondrej Hojer, 37, said of Krtek, recalling his youth in communist Czechoslovakia. The appeal endures: “My youngest one has a doll in his bed and goes to sleep with him every night,” Mr. Hojer said.
Created in 1956 by the Czech animator Zdenek Miler, the mole first appeared in an award-winning film commissioned by Communist Party leaders as a way to teach children about making trousers. The silent character found huge appeal as an advocate of friendship, morality and human decency and would earn enormous popularity across Central Europe as a sort of Czech Mickey Mouse. (The Disney character was forbidden throughout the Soviet Bloc.)
But now this icon of the Communist era has become the subject of a very capitalist battle in a bitter copyright suit.
Csaba Szalo, a professor of sociology at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, said Krtek was “an iconic figure, very recognizable to both kids and adults, and is across the generations very easy to identify with for the emotions he elicits.”
“He is very unique in that he has persevered throughout communist times and after as a kind of persisting cultural figure,” he added.
After the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Krtek (pronounced KURR-teck) was free to travel. The character would spread to China, India and Japan through movies and books, spawning lucrative merchandising contracts. Though Krtek never really made it to the United States, a Krtek toy accompanied the American astronaut Andrew J. Feustel on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2011.
Celebrating Krtek’s cultural impact and marking the 60th anniversary of the character’s first appearance, an exhibition in Prague is currently showing original drawings of the character and portraits of Mr. Miler.
However, with success came problems. Confusion about the terms of the inheritance of Mr. Miler’s work after his death in 2011 prompted a legal battle between relatives vying for control of a business empire worth millions of dollars.
According to the details of the most recent case at a court in Prague, Mr. Miler left a controlling stake to five of his direct relatives. Among them was his granddaughter, Karolina Milerova, who lived with Mr. Miler from the age of 14 after falling out with her mother. Ms. Milerova, now 28, says she maintained a close relationship with Mr. Miler and cooperated on projects involving Krtek.
Ms. Milerova says Mr. Miler handed her full control of all copyright, in writing, while on his deathbed. Soon after, she established a new company with the intention of carrying on her grandfather’s legacy, she told the court.
On Oct. 17, the court rejected her claim, determining that the language in the contract was too vague. The decision jeopardizes several licenses she issued over the past six years allowing the production of new Krtek products.
The Krtek character has become the subject of a bitter copyright suit. Credit Julie Denesha
“My grandfather and I had a very special relationship because we lived together for 10 years. Later, we started to do some projects together related to his artwork,” Ms. Milerova said in an interview, adding that she would take her case to a higher court.
“I am the only person in the world who has this right to the future of the brand,” she said.
Not everybody agrees. While Ms. Milerova says that most of the family has reached a consensus after several years, her mother, Barbora Milerova, and the administrator of Mr. Miler’s inheritance, Milena Fischerova, have moved to block her from expanding Krtek’s commercial presence. Neither Ms. Milerova nor Ms. Fischerova responded to requests for comment, and they have largely stayed out of public view.
Some merchandising vendors who once enjoyed exclusive use of Krtek’s likeness through contracts struck with Mr. Miler have also expressed annoyance because they have been forced to compete with a slew of competitors granted licenses by Karolina Milerova.
Alena Samkova, director of Matejovsky, a Czech manufacturer that produces bedding and linen lines with Krtek’s image, said that the account was once the mainstay of her business. Now, however, the company is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars after the market was flooded with lower-quality replicas, she said.
“They each have a contract that has different conditions and nobody can say which is the right contract,” Ms. Samkova said. “This was not what Mr. Miler wanted.”
With millions of dollars at stake, it could be years until the issue is unraveled. The only thing that seems certain is that fans’ affection for Krtek will survive.
“In the commercial world, it has very clear effects,” said Mr. Szalo, the sociology professor. “But if you look at the audience, and children and those who are nostalgic of their childhood, they probably do not care too much about the copyright issue.”
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