Western spirit and cash on the line as university sues an Italian media company for copyright infringement of lovable, furry blob

Shawntaye Hopkins

If Big Red had a hot date, he might hang up his jersey-like university letters and don a tuxedo.

But that might pose a problem.

There’s already an Italian character sporting similar attire.

Western and Crossland Enterprises Inc., a California-based licensing company, are suing an Italian television company for $250 million for trademark and copyright infringement.

Mediaset, an Italian television company controled by the prime minister of the country, airs a show called Striscia La Notizia, or Stripping the News. The show’s star is Gabibbo, a character who bares a strong resemblance to Big Red.

Mediaset representatives could not be reached for comment.

But Gibibbo’s creator has denied that the mascot was based on Big Red.

The lawsuit was filed in February 2003.

A status conference will be held tomorrow in Lugo, Italy.

The $250 million come from an estimate of the revenue Gabibbo has generated, Western ‘s General Counsel Deborah Wilkins said.

Choice of attire is the only obvious physical difference between the two furry, red blobs.

Gabibbo was created in 1990 by Antonio Ricci, according to the lawsuit.

Ricci was quoted in the Italian magazine Novella 2000 saying that he based Gabibbo on Big Red, according to a translated version of the story provided by an attorney representing the university.

He said in the story that Big Red became Gabibbo, after he saw a photo of the mascot.

“There was this puppet, Big Red was its name, which was the mascot of a basketball team in America,” Ricci told Novella 2000. “The team is Western Kentucky University.”

Ricci has since said the statement was a joke, according to a story last week in The New York Times.

Ricci said in The New York Times story that he had never seen Big Red until the Novella 2000 reporter showed it to him.

“Big Red looks a lot like Gabibbo just like Gabibbo looks like 100 other mascots,” Ricci said in the story.

Crossland Enterprises President Steven Crossland said there were too many details in the statement for it to be a joke.

Striscia La Notizia is a satirical program, said Richard Davidoff, a Beverly Hills, Calif., attorney representing Western and Crossland Enterprises.

Big Red was created in 1979 by Western student Ralph Carey. Carey is expected to join the lawsuit this week, Davidoff said.

Representatives from Adfra, a company in Lugo that handles marketing of Big Red in Italy, first discovered the existence of Gabibbo. They filed a lawsuit against Mediaset in the fall of 2002, Davidoff said.

Davidoff said he sent a letter telling Mediaset to cease and desist in January 2003, but it was ignored.

Crossland Enterprises and Western then joined Adfra in filing a lawsuit.

Mediaset did not want Big Red’s image to be marketed in Italy, Davidoff said.

But a judge ruled in January that Adfra could market Big Red products in the country.

The show starring Gabibbo airs five days a week.

Louisville junior Brad Connell has been Big Red since August.

He and Jim Clark, associate athletic director at Western, joined Crossland in Rome on Monday for a press conference.

Clark and Connell said they were surprised by Gabibbo’s stardom in the city.

Big Red played with kids in the streets as they called the name “Gabibbo” and asked for pictures, Connell said.

Connell learned about the lawsuit three weeks ago and looked up a picture of Gabibbo on the Internet.

“I was thinking ‘Big Red in clothes – wow’,” Connell said.

President Gary Ransdell participated in the creation of Big Red when he worked in the Alumni Relations office.

“It’s fun,” Ransdell said. “Sometimes it has an attitude. Sometimes it’s cuddly. Sometimes it’s playful and sometimes it fights for Western.”

Big Red debuted at a basketball game in 1979, he said. Carey created Big Red out of red fur and chicken wire.

Reach Shawntaye Hopkins at [email protected]