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The Yellow Rubber Duck and Yuanzai: A tale of two cuties

Publication Date : 24-12-2013


Media reports on Saturday indicate that Florentijn Hofman, the Dutch artist who designed the world famous floating yellow rubber duck, was infuriated at alleged copyright violations of his work in the Taiwan market. According to Hofman's team, the Keelung exhibition organiser's goods, such as miniature balloons in the shape of the duck, were a gross commercialisation of his work.

At the same time, Yuanzai, the beloved panda whose growth milestones have been documented, disseminated and gawked at by an enamoured country, offers a contrast with the rubber duck in terms of the icon's promotion.

One real animal icon, one inanimate animal icon. Their introductions to this island have incidentally raised questions about the appropriate usage of intellectual property. Benefit to society should especially be counted toward an assessment of whether spontaneous portrayal is acceptable, and to what degree.

It is obvious though, that there is overreaction on Hofman's part in his complaints against the organisers of the Keelung exhibition. In condemning the “commercial circus” of what he saw in Taiwan, Hofman risks tarnishing the lovable legacy of the yellow rubber duck.

Furthermore, it is by no means certain that Hofman's claim to an intellectual patent is valid. Jeremy Fan, the organiser of the Keelung exhibition, came out on Sunday to fire back in response to Hofman's accusations. Fan answered Hofman's allegations of having been mistreated by saying that Hofman and his family stayed at a hostel at his own request on one trip and stayed at an expensive hotel during another, according to the United Evening News on Sunday.

More importantly, Fan says that according to his research the artist had intellectual patents on the duck in neither mainland China nor Taiwan. Most people have basic knowledge of the yellow rubber duck because it was already a common symbol in the toy industry before Hofman created the huge 16-metre version. Fan claims that the duck was in existence as early as 150 years ago. The first rubber ducky was patented in 1886, a fact that would corroborate Fan's claim.

“If people want the real duck, they have to come to me,” Hofman told the Wall Street Journal when he discussed a duck that appeared in Wuhan, China. By contrast, the Taipei City Government's generosity in laying out the conditions for usage of Yuanzai demonstrates a much more reasonable and accessible spirit, although patenting Yuanzai's image is still problematic because who gave a government entity the rights to an animal? Our claims to anything outside the human sphere have to take into consideration their functional necessity for human activities, rather than our feelings of inherent entitlement to anything in nature.

“What a curious reaction considering that Hofman himself created a work of pop art which is, in and of itself, already a copy of a copy of a copy, ad infinitum,” commentator Alicia Eler writes of Hofman's aforementioned demand in her article “How Pop Art got ripped off” that was published by the arts website

So, there are lots of “fake”, or “shanzhai” versions of the duck. But even if shanzai were to be illegal and condemned, there can still be a social purpose for those who are served by them.

Shanzhai does not thrive on creativity, it thrives on reaching those people who can't reach the original product, either without geographic proximity or monetary power. Not everyone can come to Hong Kong to watch that dumb duck,” Eler quotes Hong Kong arts and culture commentator Jackie WX Tong.

It is not that intellectual property isn't important; it is to the extent that a well-defined piece of work is not already a universally recognised symbol integrated into popular culture. In the case of the rubber duck, it clearly has become a cultural archetype. “The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them,” the website for Hofman states.

“Our waters around the world are a global bathtub; we're all connected in a way, you know? Especially in these times of the Internet and social media, we can forget that we've always been a family. We need to take care of each other and the planet,” Hofman said in an interview with HK Magazine.

Let's hope everyone transcends the dissonance over patents and rejoices in the cuteness and healing powers of both Yuanzai and the rubber duck.


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