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Ampelmännchen is Still Going Places

DW staff (jp)June 16, 2005

One relic of the GDR has never been more popular -- the little green and red "Ampelmännchen" on pedestrian crossings. But who actually owns the marketing rights to this much-loved motif?

A runaway successImage: AP

You name it, he's been on it. With bath mats, lampshades, vases, key-rings, t-shirts, mouse mats and coffee cups to choose from, you haven't been to Berlin if you haven't brought home a souvenir emblazoned with the portly little figure with the trademark bowler hat.

The "Ampelmännchen" is an industry unto himself, and enjoys the privileged status of being one of the sole features of communist East Germany to have survived the end of the Iron Curtain with his popularity unscathed.

In the 1990s, he found himself at the heart of a full-blown rescue campaign when he was faced with possible extinction. The figure first designed by Karl Peglau in 1961 had come to symbolize "Ostalgie" -- the revival of the East German aesthetic as cool kitsch -- and when the reunited Germany tried replacing him with a slimmed-down western version in 1997, his fans rallied and saved him from certain death.

An east-west stand-off

His winning streak has shown no signs of letting up, and the 16-centimeter figure has become so profitable that he's now at the heart of yet another dispute -- one that some have seen as another East-West stand-off.

Two entrepreneurs from Saxony and former West Berlin took their fight over the marketing rights to the Ampelmännchen to a Leipzig court.

Erste Ampelfrau in Zwickau
Joachim RoßbergImage: dpa

Engineer Joachim Roßberg (photo) from Zwickau, whose claim to the logo is that he was the only manufacturer of traffic lights in the former East Germany, was being sued by designer Markus Heckhausen, who began incorporating the figure into products in 1995. He now sells over forty items, and told the court that he made 2 million euros last year with his Ampelmännchen souvenirs.

Heckhausen -- one of the initiators of the "Save the Amplemännchen" campaign ten years ago -- argued that Roßberg, who markets just six Ampelmännchen products, was failing to make full use of his marketing rights. Legally, if no use of marketing rights is made for five years, the rights can be cancelled. But Roßberg insisted his business makes a tidy 50,000 euros a year.

Amicable agreement

This week, the court proposed the rivals flesh out an amicable solution to the problem -- and the unusual love triangle now seems to have a way of surviving.

"Money won't be changing hands," said Roßberg. Instead, he and Heckhausen have decided to share and trade certain rights.

Markus Heckhausen präsentiert Ampelmännchen-Lampen
Markus HeckhausenImage: dpa

"According to our agreement, we will simply exchange certain rights to the Ampelmann and the newer Ampelwoman," Heckhausen explained.

Roßberg will therefore continue to sell his best-known product, a liquor emblazoned with the logo -- despite Heckhausen's scornful remark that "traffic regulations and alcohol are hardly compatible."

But despite such little squabbles, Heckhausen is convinced the compromise will work. "Once again, the Ampelmännchen has proved to be a positive symbol of reunification," he said.