One of the most bizarre instances of ‘Cybis-design appropriation’ – and there are quite a few of them shown in the Hall of Shame, by the way – recently came to light unexpectedly. One would typically expect a deliberate Cybis knockoff to have been the product of some fly-by-night (or at least, offshore) company looking to make some quick bucks via copyright infringement; what I didn’t expect was that it would come from the venerated [in cake decorating circles] Wilton company!
The Wilton company began in the late 1920s when its founder, Dewey Wilton, first began touring the USA under the name Wilton School of Cake Decorating, instructing bakers and chefs in the art of decoration and confectionary. After the close of WWII, he and his son opened a school in their Chicago home to teach the art to veterans. During the 1950s they incorporated as Wilton Enterprises and issued their first product catalog in 1954. Various publications and sales literature followed during the subsequent decades, including Annuals, Yearbooks, and specialty books featuring wedding and holiday designs.
This is a sample page from a 1970s Wilton yearbook. In addition to a plethora of pans and a veritable avalanche of cake-decorating equipment, there are hundreds of plastic toppers, decorations, “picks” and party favors, most costing less than two dollars for a pack of six small or one larger item. And this is where Cybis mysteriously comes in.
Cybis Wendy/Wilton Little Miss Ponytail
This is, of course, Cybis’ Wendy which was introduced in 1957 and continued to be produced by the studio for almost all of its existence. She is 6.5” tall.
Look familiar? This was made by (for, actually) Wilton. This particular one has yellowed with age, because these are plastic. This item is 4.5” tall, so she is a downsized-mold copy.
Here’s one in better condition, still in its original packaging. They have named her “Little Miss Ponytail” and she is designated as a party favor because she does not have a ‘pick’ base that would allow her to sit securely atop a cake. She sold for 59 cents. “Sugar Plum” was one of Wilton’s market brandings under which they sold various items such as food colors, a cookie press, cake pans, sugar molds and kits, decorating sets, various plastic cake topper items, and party favors such as this one.
These were made offshore (Hong Kong) for Wilton, who has always been based in Chicago.
There’s no doubt that this was ‘meant’ to be Wendy; even the colors are the same as the Cybis piece.
It would be easy to dismiss the Wilton item as just another case of piracy (surprising as the ‘perp’ might be!) except for one thing: the Wilton company copyrighted their item!
This is the copyright registration for their Little Miss Ponytail plastic figure, originally filed in 1972 and granted in February 1973. So, they had a legal right to make these. But how can that be, when Cybis had been making the same thing in porcelain for 15 years previously?
This is one of the instances where the studio’s failure to formally copyright their designs prior to the early 1960s came back to bite them: There is no record of a copyright registration for Wendy. Theoretically, Cybis’ was clearly the “first use” of that mold (as far as we know!), a challenge could have been mounted to the Wilton item on that basis and Cybis probably would have won. I asked Cybis’ controller Jerry Sawyer, who handled all matters of copyright infringement during the late 1970s and early 1980s, if he remembers the Wilton item but unfortunately this happened shortly before he joined the studio. It may well be that the studio never knew about the Wilton item because it was not in the “porcelain marketplace.”
Wendy was not the only Wilton copy during that time period, however.
Cybis Red Shoes/Wilton ballerina
Cybis produced their Ballerina ‘Red Shoes’ in two colorways, from 1960 until 1967. She is 10.5” high overall, including the wood base to which she is attached.
I have found the Wilton version in two colorways (silver, and pink) so far. Sellers have cited her as between 6.75” and 7” tall. She has a pick on the toe of her left foot that allows her to be used as a cake topper (she would be too tall for a cupcake), and the silver version came with a separate detachable stand so that she could also be a table decoration or party favor. Because I did not find either of these in their original packaging, I don’t know if it was named or if the pink version had the stand also.
An online search for the copyright registration of both Red Shoes and this particular Wilton ballerina turned up nothing. The seller of the pink ballerina cited it as being made in Hong Kong which points to it having been a Sugar Plum item also, and probably from the same time period.
Three Peter Pans: Cybis, Ispanky, and Wilton
There is a weird copyright triangle between Cybis, Ispanky, and Wilton regarding the Peter Pan sculpture… or, rather, two Peter Pan sculptures.
This is the Cybis Peter Pan, which was designed by Laszlo Ispanky and issued by the Cybis studio in 1958 in two versions: color, and white bisque. The white one was retired in 1967, and the color one in 1970. He is 7.5” high. There is no Cybis copyright registration found for him. Because Ispanky did not formally join the studio as Art Director until 1960, he must have designed this piece for them on a freelance basis in the late 1950s.
After Ispanky left the studio in 1966, he opened his own studio in partnership with George Utley. During this time, he created his own Peter Pan which is ridiculously similar to the one he had done for Cybis. The “Utley Porcelains” in the backstamp dates this item’s introduction to 1966 or 1967. It is 8.5” tall, and so just a bit bigger than the Cybis version. A copyright registration search for this particular piece also turned up nothing.
By now it’s no surprise to see a Wilton/Sugar Plum copy of the Ispanky Peter Pan, which was itself only slightly different than the original Cybis Peter Pan.
Of course, Wilton copyrighted their item, during the same timeframe (1972/73) as they had the Wendy/Little Miss Ponytail.
Just like two peas in a pod!
A Question of Timing
The looming question is, of course, “from whom did Wilton acquire these three designs, and when?” … and we are pretty sure – given the studio’s penchant for keeping things close to the vest – it definitely was not from Cybis. Looking at the big picture, as a group, it’s hard not to posit that perhaps the rights to these three designs came to Wilton from Laszlo Ispanky. Although we only know for sure that he designed the Cybis Peter Pan, it is quite possible that he was also the original designer of Wendy and/or Red Shoes. If that was indeed the case, and he created them prior to them being issued in the retail marketplace as Cybis pieces, he would probably have had the basis for selling the reproduction rights to Wilton during the early 1970s… whether the Cybis studio was aware of it or not.
One thing is fairly certain, which is that Wilton Enterprises did have permission – from someone, and because it would not have been Cybis it must have been the original designer(s) – to make these items. They had, and still have, a phalanx of lawyers handling their licensing arrangements, and as early as the 1960s they were selling licensed items such as a Winnie the Pooh cake pan under their Sugar Plum label, clearly marked as a Disney copyright (and Disney lawyers are legendary when it comes to licensing and copyright infringement, so Wilton was definitely on the straight and narrow.) Was it Ispanky who sold Wendy, Red Shoes, and (his adaptation of) Peter Pan to Wilton in the 1970s? Inquiring minds want to know! 😊
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