I’ve been tracking an amusing phenomenon during my commute, in which I walk through Times Square and occasionally pass near Rockefeller Center. A few months ago, I first noticed someone dressed in a SpongeBob mascot suit, standing outside the M&M World store on Broadway and West 48th Street. This didn’t strike me as particularly odd – it would be a good place to encounter children, and Viacom (the owner of the Nickelodeon channel) has its corporate offices in the vicinity, so perhaps a marketing executive put two and two together one day.
Not long after that, SpongeBob was joined by a mascot generally resembling Minnie Mouse, although some of the details of the costume were not quite right (it says something about the power of familiar childhood characters that it’s possible to intuitively detect a knock-off). Over the following weeks, particularly as Christmas and New Year’s approached, more and more costumed characters appeared up and down Broadway, and over on Sixth Avenue: Minnie was joined by Mickey, Elmo, Batman, and Cookie Monster (or Grover? It was kind of a fuzzy, blue mess). My favorite was a short fellow in a greenish-looking mask that seemed like it came off the shelf at Duane Reade, who was carrying a stuffed donkey and wearing a “Skechers” backpack, which I assumed was a creative attempt to conjure up some semantic relationship with the character he portrayed.
The proliferation of costumed characters with no real rationale for being on the street – not to mention the fairly obvious poor quality of the costumes themselves – raised my suspicion that they were not likely to have been sponsored by the city, or authorized by the copyright owners of the characters’ likenesses. Times Square is not a theme park, despite its investment in becoming family-friendly, and even an institution like the Naked Cowboy emerged from the grassroots. Yet the influx of competition seems to suggest that there is some custom to be had from posing with tourists who, despite their legendary gullibility, should have some idea that they’re essentially buying a $5 “Kate Spode” [sic] bag for their children when they give a tip to pseudo-Elmo.
I’ve been reflecting on what exactly is being ‘bought’ in these interactions, and why anyone is ‘buying’ them. Presumably kids are excited to see a beloved character and are able to twist their caretakers’ arms into taking a quick photo, for which a modest tip seems appropriate. Should it matter that it isn’t the ‘real’ Mickey Mouse, considering how slippery the question is when applied to a two-dimensional fictional character? On its face, probably not. It makes the kid happy and is relatively inexpensive in the grand scheme of things. It pre-empts the uncomfortable discussion that might follow the adult’s remark of, “oh, that’s just an underemployed worker wearing a smiling rodent suit.” Perhaps it even will provide a valuable teaching moment about fiction and reality, later in life. If the child is happy to see the knock-off character, would he or she be incrementally happier if the actor were wearing a fully-authorized costume built to exacting specifications? And presumably it helps in this line of work to be friendly to tourists and families, for which people generally are willing to pay a bit extra in other circumstances (e.g., restaurants, customer service).
On the matter of copyright, it seems clear that some sort of violation has occurred, although it’s difficult to assess the harm. The copyright owners weren’t deploying their assets for the purpose of getting tips, and perhaps it’s incrementally beneficial to Viacom that children are reminded of their love for SpongeBob in the heart of one of the world’s great hubs of shopping. And where does responsibility for the violation attach? The manufacturer of the unlicensed costume? The worker who is wearing it? The tourist who snapped a photo instead of paying to go to Disney World? In a sense, all are complicit, but none are entirely responsible.
My preliminary sense is that the externalities are pretty modest, but I haven’t thought much about it. It’s annoying that these activities take up precious sidewalk space, but tourists will always find ways to interfere with pedestrian traffic. It’s generally good when people find work and even better when it doesn’t displace others.
And of course I remain impressed by the irrepressible capitalist instinct here in fair Gotham.