Just when you thought the old who-invented-the-smiley-face issue was long dead and buried, up pop the French to disturb the peace. When we last checked in five years ago, the Weekly had discovered that David Stern, who had been credited with inventing the inane and ubiquitous icon, had in fact been preceded by a number of years by a Worcester, Massachusetts, man named Harvey Ball. Local legend had it that Stern, a veteran advertising executive, thought up smiley for a University Federal Savings & Loan campaign. He was inspired, he said, by the song "Put on a Happy Face" in Bye-Bye Birdie. In fact, Ball had designed smiley for a State Mutual Insurance Co. campaign in 1963. When pressed, Stern said he didn't invent smiley so much as popularize it, a technical difference that he, to his credit, reiterated to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last week.
Now comes Franklin Loufrani, a 55-year-old French entrepreneur, who apparently registered smiley as a trademark in 1971 (and now holds legal rights to it in 80 countries), and has been making millions off the symbol ever since. Ball only heard of Loufrani's existence a couple of months ago, after the Frenchman threatened to sue US companies using the icon. Loufrani claims to have invented smiley to illustrate positive stories in a French newspaper after the student riots of 1968.
The issue may be resolved if and when Wal-Mart enters the legal picture. Calls to executives at the retailing giant, which uses smiley in its national television ads, were not returned as of press time.