The Cultural Trust versus Joe Wos. It’s on.


For an issue that shouldn’t have really had a clear winner or loser, The Cultural Trust has done a bang-up job of mucking up its little tiff with the Toonseum’s Joe Wos to the point that guess what? The Toonseum is coming out the winner.

Good job good effort, Cultural Trust.

Back to the beginning.

[How I Met Your Mother SWOOOOOSH]

First, by writing this, I’ll probably get on the Trust’s bad side. And you’re like, “Does the Trust really have a bad side?” As I’m about you show you, it does. It has a dark side. It has a SQUASH THE PUNY HUMANS side. It has a horse-in-your-bed side. I’m exaggerating.

Here’s what I know:

1. Artist Florentijn Hofman created an installation in 2007 called … ready … The Rubber Duck Project. In his effort to bring “joy” to cities and to MAKE SHITLOADS OF MONEY, he created an enormous rubber duck (really an inflatable) that has appeared in a dozen cities. Each city, from what I can gather, basically builds its own duck at Mr. Hofman’s instructions/bidding. Each one is a different size. For instance, ours needs to fit under certain bridges lest schoolchildren witness a duck beheading. Sydney, Australia commissioned and still owns theirs.

2. The Trust contacted Hofman and he agreed to bring the duck (or rather allow a duck to be built) to Pittsburgh for the Trust’s Festival of Firsts.

3. Pittsburgh freaked out in excitement. Our rivers graced by the duck, making its first appearance in America. Suck it, Portland. [rocker kick] The duck will be here next Friday.

4. The Trust has possibly invested “several hundred thousand dollars” in this installation (I’ve emailed the Trust with this question. If they respond, I’ll update the post). What I don’t know is if that’s just the artist’s fee or if that’s the artist fee combined with building fees and logistics like transporting the duck, security, etc. Either way, the artist is MAKING A SHITLOAD OF MONEY. But he says he just wants to bring joy and public art to the people. But he’s seriously making bank here. Dollah dollah billz.

The Trust is also going to make money off of this investment via merchandise sales, sponsorships, and the fact that the duck is basically a giant advertisement for their Festival of Firsts and other forthcoming shows that fall under the Trust’s umbrella.

5. The Toonseum is, according to Wos, “doing an exhibition of Rubber Ducks working with a company that has been producing them for over a decade. And exhibiting art of cartoon ducks that predate this big rubber duck by 70 years in some case.”

Seeing a chance for promotion, Wos created a shirt featuring a rubber duck, very similar to the Hofman duck, and put it up for sale, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Toonseum:

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 10.27.05 AM

He started taking pre-orders and the Trust responded in calm, measured fashion.


6. Joe received an email as follows from the Trust’s vice president of marketing and communications:

Hello Joe,

It was surprising to see the attached Facebook post on the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s website attempting to sell Rubber Duck tee shirts with a representation of the Rubber Duck Project that the Cultural Trust is presenting. Further, messaging that ‘proceeds of the tee shirts are going to benefit Toonseum’ is a major problem for us.

When you had inquired as to whether we would have official merchandise, the answer was yes. You were at no point given permission from the Trust to produce Rubber Duck tees of your own.

You may be unaware of the magnitude of our investment in this project. The artist also has a very high stake in maintaining the brand of the Rubber Duck and have asked us to help stop the very activity that Toonseum is undertaking. We have contacted other organizations that have attempted their own knock off merchandise but it is unexpected that a partner in the Cultural District would try to use our investment for profit and to further fundraise off of another organization’s presentation is truly flabbergasting.

Kevin is extremely unhappy as are many senior staff members at the Trust.

We ask that you cease and desist the selling of this unauthorized merchandise.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

First, “maintaining the brand of the Rubber Duck?”

It’s a big rubber duck. It’s not an original concept.

Here’s one in an old episode of the PowerPuff Girls Z, which Joe used as inspiration when drawing his duck:


Video here. 

Capitalizing the first letter of something doesn’t make it a brand, otherwise, I’d like to say I have a high stake in maintaining the brand of Nutella Hoover.

7. Joe responded:

Marc, just to be clear are you asking that we change the image of the rubber duck to one that looks less like the rubber duck by the artist?

This is the perfect response. It’s a rubber duck and the artist wants to protect his version of the rubber duck (which isn’t really his version as you’ll see), so if Joe were to make the rubber duck look like ANY ONE OF THESE RUBBER DUCK SHIRTS, then would the Trust be cool with that?


Marc’s response is a non-response:


Toonseum is directly referencing the Rubber Duck installation in your messaging and asking people to show their Pittsburgh spirit by purchasing a tee shirt representing that art installation for profit and fundraising.

Turn it around… How would you feel if an organization started knocking off merch for a Toonseum exhibition (that you invested your blood, sweat and tears into) and then sold that unauthorized merch against your own merchandise on Toonseum’s Facebook page?

Frankly, the ill-will that this is causing is not worth whatever dollars you’ll make.

I’ll ask Kevin to continue this conversation with you.

I hope that a positive outcome can be attained since this is not good for either organization. 



This would be more valid if it wasn’t just a simple rubber duck. It’s not an original creation in any way, shape or form. What about the guy who invented the rubber duck in the late 19th century? How does his family feel about this art? Not only that, City Paper reveals that guess what? The artist admittedly simply enlarged a duck already sold by DuckTolo Toys!

He didn’t even create that particular duck!

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 10.29.32 AM

If the artist had created some Phineas and Ferb-esque insane contraption that floated on the river, pulled in river water and turned it into wine and glitter before shooting it out of a cannon, then maybe the Toonseum shouldn’t make a “SHOOT WINE AND GLITTER OUT YOUR BUTT N’AT!” shirt.

But it’s a duck. A rubber duck.

And no matter how much you capitalize it, it’s still just a rubber duck, Ernie.

8. Joe refused to pull down the shirt, and instead informed the public that the Trust had sent him a cease and desist, at which time … VIRAL HAPPENED.

Yes, a little shirt that probably would have sold like 5 copies, is instead appearing on every single media outlet and is burning up local social media like a bag of cotton balls set on fire with the flames of the sun. Most everyone is on the Toonseum’s side on this one. Because … I can’t stress this enough … it’s a rubber duck. And because we always cheer for the little guy.

9. Not only that, the digital artist for the Cultural Trust, Brian Nichols, used his personal account to post on the Toonseum’s Facebook page to vent:


Holy quap, indeed.

10. Now, here’s my thoughts on this.

First, you can buy your own giant inflatable rubber duck and stick it on the river until the police shoot holes in it.

Buy yours here!

Second, I wouldn’t have a problem if the Trust asked Joe to change the image to look different from THE Rubber Duck. It’s valid. They’ve invested in that particular version of the duck; make your own version and sell it in your shop. But instead the Trust is just stomping their feet and being incredibly stubborn for an organization that is currently promoting and making money off of an unsanctioned by J.K. Rowling UNAUTHORIZED HARRY POTTER PLAY. 

Third, I compare this to the vendors who sell “Pirates” gear near the ballpark. You’ll notice nothing actually says Pirates. Instead the hat will be black and gold and it will say “Pittsburgh.” The Pirates have invested tons of money into their own merchandise, but even they know sending a cease and desist to generic black and gold pirate-themed merchandisers is a losing game.  Besides, other than those who are looking to save a few bucks, most want the AUTHENTIC merchandise. We want Cole’s name on our backs. We want the angry pirate dude on it. We want the sweet P. Likewise, the Trust should have realized the market for their official merchandise will be fantastic, with or without one knockoff shirt being sold in a tiny museum down the street.

11. What should have happened? The Trust should have asked Joe to cease and desist using THAT particular duck and Joe would have complied. He would have made it a more generic rubber duck and sold 30 shirts, if that. The official merchandise, which is AWESOME, would have sold thousands and thousands. 

Instead, the Trust is going after all duck-themed merchandise that could be sold in conjunction with their forthcoming installation, angering the public.

By their own fault, it’s now viral and it’s a Big Deal. And since I capitalized it, you know I mean business.

I don’t even want to know what the Trust will do when they see this site, which has been selling duck merchandise since 2009:

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 10.00.37 AM


Probably this:



And not just because of the Comic Sans.

12. And finally, to the Trust I say, “Frankly, the ill-will that this is causing is not worth whatever dollars you’ll make.”

That’s my take on it. What do you think?

Please don’t comment with “This is low, Ginny … just low.”




  1. Michelle B
    September 20, 2013 11:47 am

    I agree with you 100%. Thanks to this story, I plan on going to see the duck, and purchasing a Quack n’at t-shirt for my daughter from the Toonseum. No one likes an a$$hole, Cultural Trust. Just sayin’.

  2. Megan
    September 20, 2013 11:47 am

    Oh man, the amount of grief that could have been saved by not doing this over email is mindblowing. This is totally a grab-a-beer and talk-it-out-respectfully situation. If that doesn’t work, then we get into the cease and desist land.

    “Hey, I get why you’re doing what you’re doing. How about you throw a couple of links to the Trust and some supportive, promotional copy about the exhibit on your site and order form?”
    “What if I gave 10% of the profits to the Trust?”
    “What if we sold your merch on our page and gave you 20%?”
    “What if you included links to the Toonseum event, sold the merch, and gave me 30%?”
    “What if – WHAT IF – we included links to Toonseum, gave you 10% for your merch, and I buy the next round of drinks?”
    “Next two rounds.”

  3. Laura
    September 20, 2013 12:03 pm

    I work for a small business downtown that is located in an Arcade like shopping area (hint hint). The powers that be in the building for the retailers are always trying to help bring us more business, which we appreciate greatly.

    A memo was sent out last week for us retailers to come up with Duck (oh my God did I just capitalize that???) promotions to help draw customers in to our shops as they go about Duck (crap I did it again) gazing in our fair city. In the memo was a info packet from Visit Pittsburgh stating for businesses, hotels, retailers, ATTRACTIONS, create promotions to help draw people into the city. And why do we draw them in? To take their money.

    Isn’t that what Toonseum essentially did? Whether they offer a discount to draw more people in that usual (which, OMG results in a profit) or sell special merch, they are making money off the Duck.

    The Cultural Trust needs to take the stick out of their collected a$$es.

  4. Joe Wos
    September 20, 2013 12:24 pm

    I actually did exactly what you said. We had reached out multiple times to try and get a meeting, or come up with some resolution. We were told in no uncertain terms that we should refer to their statement. They would not follow up despite multiple requests.

  5. Nathan J Shaulis
    September 20, 2013 12:48 pm

    1. The basis for asserting Hofman’s copyright seems to be that his work is “transformative”, i.e. based on an earlier idea or concept, but elevated/changed/reinterpreted in a way that makes it substantially different than the original concept. Neither Hofman or the PCT can reasonably make the argument that it is a wholly original creation, based on research conducted by the University of MY EYES. So if we accept the idea that it can be protected on that basis, then surely Joe Wos’s design is similarly protected, for the same exact reason! I believe this is settled case law. In Goose v. Gander (1794) the court upheld that “what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”.

    2. The legal issues aside, their response seems petty and arrogant. Even IF you and your organization are 100% unassailable on the legal front (they aren’t, as displayed by the copious amounts of copyright issues the artist has had over the years), it’s pretty low to pick a fight with a local artist at the behest of a foreign one. Seriously, Cultural Trust, that’s what this boils down to in the eyes of the public: you picked a fight with one of our own. Yeah, you might have better legal standing and a team of lawyers, but you wouldn’t have to even think of using them if it had been handled better from the start. Pittsburgh, for all its tall buildings and trappings of a city, is still very much a small town. You don’t pick fights with locals in a small town.

    3. Related somewhat to point #2: Does the Cultural Trust know about the Internet? Have they seen Barbara Streisand’s beach-front home? Have they watched the Kony 2012 video?!
    Don’t pick fights with locals who have a very engaging and active social media presence.

  6. Emilie
    September 20, 2013 12:55 pm

    I just wanna know – can I still get a shirt? Because I want one. The Cultural Trust is being stupid and as I said on Twitter – I’m pretty sure my donation next year will NOT be going to them but to someone who isn’t a stupid jerk. Like the Toonseum.

  7. Jason
    September 20, 2013 1:19 pm

    The one thing I sorta see as sort of valid — and seems to be getting glossed over in all the “David vs. Goliath” excitement — is buried in the email. This seems to have started with the Toonseum using PCT’s own social media presence to market their shirts to PCT’s followers knowing full well PCT was already selling T-shirts as well. It’d be like finding the most popular bakery in town, parking right in front of their store, and selling cookies out of the trunk of your car. Now you can do that — in fact, the Girl Scouts sell cookies in front of (and even inside) Giant Eagles all the time. But I’m willing to bet the Girl Scouts a) ASKED Giant Eagle before doing so and b) didn’t try and pretend it’s some lofty struggle about “who owns the idea of a cookie” when it’s really about making a buck.

    That having been said, I eagerly await the PCT’s lawsuit against Ernie from “Sesame Street”.

    • Joe Wos
      September 20, 2013 1:29 pm

      Jason, You are absolutely right on that I did post on their facebook page. You are also right about this being about trying to make a buck. I would never deny that, I have said a few times this is about art enterprise too.
      They often ask us to post trust events, ticket sales and more on the ToonSeum page, they also have us post their posters in our windows, and advertisements for competing galleries downtown. All that being said, the issue wasnt so much that we posted it on their facebook page, it is common for cross promotion to happen, but with their own merchandise now coming out i can understand they wouldnt want promotion on their facebook. They took it down immediately, and I did not protest them taking it down at all.They were not selling shirts of their own at that time. What is at issue are the multiple cease and desist sent out to small organizations that are selling anything with ducks on them.
      Keep in mind that we are all arts organizations within the Cultural District and their mission and purpose is to promote us all. Thats my issue, is that it should be okay for all to benefit by the ducks visit. Your point is well grounded though and I don’t argue it.

  8. Eric
    September 20, 2013 1:42 pm

    I agree with Megan that the Trust probably could have handled this better but they are bringing this amazing thing to Pittsburgh. It’s not going to LA, or NYC. They got it to come here. They are a non-profit organization that turned around and you have a guy trying to make a buck off what they are doing by gorilla marketing their Facebook site. Sorry that’s crappy.

  9. Monty
    September 20, 2013 1:49 pm

    I’m with you — the Trust is crying fowl.

    Odds on this giant duck being in Ghostbusters III?

  10. Twinmamateb
    September 20, 2013 2:40 pm

    Is the Trust sending C&D letters to Just Ducky Tours as well? Their little merchandise booth is FILLED with all things ducky. Just sayin.

  11. PA Girl in VA
    September 20, 2013 2:42 pm

    Sounds like The Trust has taken extensive notes from Eat ‘n Park on how to battle copyright infringement :)

  12. Morgan
    September 20, 2013 3:46 pm

    The poor PR person at the Cultural Trust probably used to have such an easy job…promote the wonderful fun activities the CT puts on in the city. And now, crisis control! Ouch! They might even have to bring in…a CONSULTANT!

  13. Brian
    September 20, 2013 4:18 pm

    I love the Phineas and Ferb reference. I can see the episode now. “Ferb, I know what we’re going to do today…”

  14. bluzdude
    September 20, 2013 4:35 pm

    Thank goodness Toonseum never used Quack “n@”.

  15. Bram R
    September 20, 2013 5:19 pm

    It sounds to me like this might have rubbed raw a long-simmering issue: that of the “Toonseum” horning in on the Cultural Trust’s highbrow vibe through sheer proximity and a suffix, without being a formal part of or contributing towards it. I for one didn’t wasn’t enamored of how Joe was quick to mention “free enterprise” in his defense; it just didn’t sound very “museumy” to me. And then it dawned on me, “Maybe I should think of it as the Toon Gallery, or Joe’s Toon Gallery”. For the record I’d have no issue at all if the schlock vendors in the Strip were selling these quasi-knock-offs, and come to think of it I only hardly have an issue at all. We just need something to chatter about I guess.

  16. Jay
    September 20, 2013 7:06 pm

    This all seems to be a symptom of a Cultural Trust that started with a benevolent cause and grew to be a greedy monopoly. It’s time to seriously consider forcing them to divest their real estate, landlord and development interests (RiverParc) and have them focus on promoting the arts in the district, like Toonseum, It seems they view them as competition instead of partners & constituents. It’s clear from their threats they no longer have the best interests of their partners in the artistic community in mind.

    The big monopoly vs. an honest merchant might never have happened if they had a clear mission, but alas the Cultural Trust seems to have lost it’s way. It would seem they consider only the interests of the Cultural Trust and not the interests of the artists and sites on which they rely.

    Sad to say, the Cultural Trust has soiled itself and shown where it’s real interests lie — with itself only. They are not acting “cultured” and are rapidly losing the “trust” of artists and patrons alike.

  17. Jerry McNeice
    September 21, 2013 6:42 am

    Ok… After retrieving the mail yesterday… I suppose the casino in town should expect to get a c&d request from the Trust a well.. They sent out a post card sized mailer… With a big rubber duck on it… Saying “Quack on down the river”… With the corresponding dates and all! Just sayin…

  18. Michele
    September 21, 2013 1:36 pm

    If the t-shirt was made to publicize the rubber duck exhibition at the Toonseum, then why does the t-shirt ad state anything about the world’s largest duck visiting our city? I would think that is part of what they are upset about. It is referencing their event in the t-shirt ad.

  19. aunt penny
    September 21, 2013 6:55 pm

    Good thing piratz are not in town, what if Pedro launched one into the ducks left eye. Just sayin.

    This quacks me up, yinz kids need to learn to play nice.

  20. gunnlino
    September 22, 2013 12:57 pm

    Leave it to the money grubbing adults to get down and dirty over something that has been the provenance of bare bottom babies in bathtubs since its inception .
    That it’s difficult to conceptualize exclusive rights to a yellow rubber duck , why that would be like trademarking a figure of speech like “Yinz” or “Jagoff” or even “N@” , and no body would corner the market on a part of our culture . would they ?
    Simply Google ( yes I went there ) rubber duck and you get over 5,500,000 entries . IMHO that number makes it something that at this point makes it a part of the culture not exclusive to the Cultural Trust .

  21. Vannevar Bush
    September 23, 2013 11:26 am

    Seen on Twitter: @VannevarB

    –Cultural Trust wants restaurants to avoid “duck a l’orange”-theme specials during Duck display. Unbelievable.

    –Is it true that CultTrust asked Just Ducky Tours to chg name to “Just Tours” and avoid Quack Quack sounds?

    –Did CulturalTrust ask Penguins not to advertise Nov8 game vs Anaheim Ducks when @QuackPgh is here n’at?

  22. Frank Santoro
    September 24, 2013 11:26 am

    The Toonseum sucks.

  23. bucdaddy
    September 24, 2013 11:44 am

    You really, REALLY don’t want the Olympics ever to come here.

  24. Terry J Wood
    September 26, 2013 10:13 am

    I think the Cultural Trust missed the boat. They should have bought the rights from Joe to the “Quack N At” T-shirts. They could have made a fortune and could have supported the ToonSeum at the same time. It would have been great publicity. It could have been win-win.

    It STILL could be win-win. It’s not too late for them to turn this around.

    Even if they didn’t want to market this, I think they’d have been better off buying up the shirts.

    But then, I’d never have been able to get one! :-)

    Thanks Joe! I LOVE that shirt. It’s SO Picksburgh!