East German Loses Copyright Battle over Beloved Traffic Symbol | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.06.2006
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Germany

East German Loses Copyright Battle over Beloved Traffic Symbol

An east German businessman on Friday lost a copyright battle over the use of the former communist state's beloved traffic light symbol, the Ampelmännchen, to a souvenir entrepreneur from the west.

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The Ampelmännchen has found a place in many a German heart

A court in Leipzig ruled that Joachim Rossberg's right to use the stocky, hat-wearing Ampelmännchen, or traffic-light man, as a marketing brand had largely lapsed.

This was argued by lawyers for the Berlin-based company Ampelmännchen Ltd., which since 1997 has been doing a roaring trade in souvenirs, from T-shirts to sweets, bearing the likeness of Ampelmännchen.

They said the copyright had passed back into the public domain as Rossberg, who lives in the eastern state of Saxony, had not exercised it for five years.

The court found that Rossberg retains only the right to use the distinctive street-crossing symbol to market liqueur, and may no longer use it as a logo on beer and T-shirts. He said that he would appeal the ruling.

Easy to read, and fun

The Ampelmännchen was created in 1961 by a traffic psychologist, Karl Peglau, when an increase in cars in the former East Germany made the streets more dangerous for pedestrians.

Erste Ampelfrau in Zwickau

Joachim Rossberg has said he'll appeal the ruling

Peglau wanted a symbol that would appeal to children and could easily be read by the elderly. He therefore deliberately made the figure as clear, and cute, as possible.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ampelmännchen acquired cult status.

The authorities wanted to replace him with the standard western traffic sign, but residents of the former East launched a successful campaign to keep a part of their culture. At the same time, the figure also became popular with tourists who could now freely travel to the former German Democratic Republic.

Ampelmännchen Ltd was founded by Markus Heckhausen, a graphic designer from the western city of Tübingen who moved to Berlin.

The court case has been seen by some as part of the cultural and political struggle between residents of the two parts of the reunified country, in which the underdog East generally loses.

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