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STB's handling of Merliger look alike accusations wins praise from creative industry

STB's handling of Merliger look alike accusations wins praise from creative industry

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Over the long Easter weekend holidays, a local Singaporean artist voiced his opinion on the new Singapore Tourism Board (STB) campaign featuring a Merlion with limbs. According to the artist, the “Merliger”, which was playing partner to the famous Japanese superhero Ultraman in an ad, looked similar to a concept that he had first come up with in 1993 in his graphic novel The Myth Of The Stone.

While no lawsuits were filed, the artist said he simply wished for his work to be acknowledged and “some recognition of the life of home-born concepts”. His comments saw netizens split as to whether STB should bear any responsibility for the similarity. While some sided with the artists stating that STB should at least make clear where it got the inspiration from, others argued that there was no visual resemblance between the two Merlion artworks.

STB's regional director for North Asia Markus Tan also clarified that STB had worked with Tsuburaya Productions to “produce original characters that would resonate well with the Japanese audience”, and this new interpretation of the Merlion was in line with the distinctive style of their long-running Ultraman franchise.

Handling such allegations

In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, industry professionals shared that in any campaign creation today, what is vital is the level of scrutiny to ensure such situations don’t occur.

Commenting on the similarity, however, Fiona Bartholomeusz, founder of creative agency formul8, said she did not feel the interpretations bore any resemblance to each other. Bartholomeusz further added that the Merlion's copyright should and does rightfully belong to STB, and in fact, “STB should take umbrage at those manipulating the image without their written approval”.

“I don’t see how adding limbs to a symbol makes it uniquely yours, there’s really no visual similarity or grounds to claim that it’s been ripped off. I think STB has been gracious enough to allow artists to alter images of the Merlion for their own personal portfolios, let’s not take advantage of the situation. In such a situation, I think STB should just thank him for the interest in supporting the creative interpretations of a national mascot, but also inform the artist that there is no abuse of his creative copyright as the primary symbol doesn’t belong to him,” said Bartholomeusz.

Edwin Yeo, general manager of SPRG, shared that STB managed the situation and didn't just dismiss the artist's claim, and reached out to him to address his concerns.

I do think such coincidences to happen as putting limbs on a Merlion aren’t exactly something which is that far-fetched.

“Despite that, STB didn't dismiss the artist's claim outright and accorded him the respect he deserved, as he is quite a well-known local author and personality. I can understand why he felt frustrated, and he does have a point that local work needs more recognition, but I don't think this case merited it,” he said

Having the right checks and balances in place

Adding to the conversation, Alvina Seah, managing director of GOVT shared that typically most appointed production partners and agencies do work together to ensure that any such usage rights are cleared before use. Most agencies adopt this discipline as a standard protocol.

Deeming the situation a possible coincidence, she said:

While this does seem like a coincidence, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to iron out the coincidence with the artist.

At the end of the day, the responsibility falls back on the agency to cover the client best they can, shared former adman and creative director Robert Gaxiola. Gaxiola currently runs the newly-launched digital content studio Something Else as director of creative and content. The current situation, he added, falls into arts management and copyright.

As far as protocol goes, once the storyboards are approved the agency should have their legal people have a look to make sure there is no infringement so that production can ensue without any issues.

“Best the creative team can do is to offer where they sourced the inspiration from, then the art buyer in the agency or producer can make the call from there. Remember too, it is possible that the creative team came up with this creature from an original sketch. The Merlion is based on a merman. (Merperson) so it is not that much of a stretch to re-imagine this creation with arms,” he added.

Related articles:
Ultraman and Merlion battle monsters in downtown Singapore
Ultraman lands in Singapore for latest STB campaign

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