Soft Porn Heiress' Troubled Business

Scales of JusticeThe “Wonderful World of AMAZING Live Sea-Monkeys” is in turmoil and roiled by a lawsuit alleging breach of contract as well as copyright and trademark infringement.

Background

Back in the early 1960s there was a fad for simple animals you could “bring back to life.” Inspired by the success of “Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm,” Harold von Braunhut started selling “Instant Life” — brine shrimp, shipped in their natural state of suspended animation, that came to life when put in water.

Wham-O, a major toy company at the time, started selling “Instant Fish,” a product that turned out to be a dud: the African killifish they were using did not come back to life when put in water. The failure of Instant Fish also hurt Harold’s business — people lost faith in the concept.

But von Braunhut was not to be deterred. A prolific inventor — he eventually was awarded a total of 196 patents — he decided to come up with a more exciting offering. Working with scientists at the New York Ocean Science Laboratory in Montauk, he developed a new hybrid brine shrimp species that that could last longer en route and be likelier to come back to life when rehydrated.

von Braunhut was a master marketer — he called the new life form “Sea-Monkeys” and marketed them aggressively on the back covers of comic books. Business took off.

von Braunhut died in 2003. His estate went to his wife, Yolanda Signorelli von Braunhut. Signorelli von Braunhut is a colorful character in her own right.  In the 60s she starred in a series of soft-porn films including such classics as “Venus in Fur,” a bondage film based on a novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

After her husband’s death Signorelli von Braunhut decided to license much of the Sea-Monkey business to Big Time Toys. She continued to provide the packets with the brine shrimp.

In 2013 Big Time told Signorelli von Braunhut that they considered the royalty payments already made as payment for the company, under a clause that allowed for them to purchase the company in installments, and they quit making any payments. This has put Signorelli von Braunhut in a tenuous financial position — she still lives on the palatial estate in Maryland that she shared with her late husband, but she often can’t afford water or electricity. So she filed a lawsuit.

Big Time continues to sell the product. Ironically, a pamphlet for Sea-Monkey owners includes Signorelli von Braunhut’s Maryland address. Big Time now sources brine shrimp from China. The NYTimes did a test of the original versus the Chinese version.

The results:

On the day that the shrimp reanimated, there was really no comparison. Von Braunhut’s produced hundreds of Sea-Monkeys, which — I have to say — are still irritatingly tiny after all these years. Big Time’s tank was very quiet by comparison, requiring a lot of squinting and really good light for the embedded magnifiers to offer a fleeting glance of one or two drifting by.

The Lawsuit

von Braunhut’s attorney, William Timmons, filed suit against Big Time in federal court in New York. The lawsuit accuses Big Time of copyright infringement, trademark infringement, breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, unjust enrichment, breach of implied contract, conversion (unauthorized assumption of right of ownership), and tortious interference with business relationships. He also sought an injunction to block Big Time from shipping product.

Big Time filed a motion to dismiss; a few of the causes of action were dismissed, but the major ones – copyright and trademark infringement and breach of contract — stand and will go to trial.

Unfortunately, as Ms. Signorelli von Braunhut’s precarious financial situation shows, you can go broke while trying to enforce your intellectual property rights. She’s been fighting this battle for over three years already. 

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