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Traffic-Light Man in Tug-of-War Between East and West

DW staff / AFP (ncy)February 1, 2006

He survived the fall of communism, but the trials and tribulations of the traffic-light man from former East Germany are far from over.

Markus Heckhausen's right to use the traffic-light man is being contestedImage: dpa

Two businessmen -- one from eastern Germany and one from the West -- are now waging a patent rights battle over the Ampelmännchen which the press has played up as proof of the tension between the two parts of the once-divided country.

Markus Heckhausen, a designer from Tübingen in southern Germany, moved to Berlin in 1995 and two years later began selling items ranging from T-shirts to fridge magnets, flip-flops and fruit drops bearing the Ampelmännchen -- who was named after the German word for traffic light.

By then the Germans from the former East, or Ossis, had won the battle to keep their iconic little figure with his hat and his arms spread wide in warning when the light is red. Initially after the Iron Curtain fell, the German authorities wanted to replace him with the skinnier, less expressive traffic symbol used in the rest of Germany. But residents of the East founded a committee that fought hard to prevent another part of their culture from being swallowed up in the reunification process.

Part of East German identity

Today, there are even areas in western Berlin where broken traffic lights have been replaced with ones featuring the inimitable Ampelmännchen.

"The Ossis said that one could not do away with everything that set them apart. Especially since it was something rather fun," Heckhausen told AFP.

Ein Ampelmännchen Ost Kombo rot und grün
The East German traffic light man's fame is turning to notoriety.Image: AP

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

Peglau wanted a symbol that would appeal to children and could easily be read by the elderly. He deliberately made the figure as clear, and cute, as possible. The Ampelmännchen became a much-loved figure in East Germany decades before he would become something of a mascot for Berlin and one of the tourist attractions of the new German capital.

In the 1980s, a cartoon Ampelmann explained traffic rules to East German children on television and around the same time an East Berlin-based businessman, Joachim Rossberg, began selling Ampelmännchen memorabilia.

Battle between East and West?

Rossberg and Heckhausen are now facing each other in court, with the former accusing his rival of having infringed his patents for Ampelmännchen toys and brandy.

Erste Ampelfrau in Zwickau
Rossberg's company also makes traffic-light womenImage: dpa

"Whether people like it or not, the Ampelmännchen remains a symbol of the east. My company is the one that originally began producing memorabilia, I was doing this long before the Iron Curtain came down," Rossberg said.

Heckhausen has countered that Rossberg has not exercised his patent rights for the past five years and that they have therefore passed back into the public domain. His Ampelmännchen memorabilia company employs 30 people and made some 2.4 million euros ($2.9 million) in 2005.

The entrepreneur angrily rejected the picture created in the press of a greedy Wessi, using the nickname for western Germans, stealing from a poor Ossi.

"It's a cliche. Our litigation can hardly be seen as a battle between East and West," he said.

A court in Leipzig, in the east of the country, is expected to rule on the matter on Feb. 14.