Before there was Skippy peanut butter, there was Skippy the comic strip character -- a little pen-and-ink boy with a floppy hat and short pants created in the 1930s by cartoonist Percy L. Crosby.
The fact that millions of Americans today recognize the name Skippy as a label on a jar, not as a once-popular, nationally syndicated comic strip, rankles Crosby's daughter, Joan Crosby Tibbetts of Reston.
The name is very much a part of my family's life," she says.
Tibbetts, who leads Skippy, Inc., a marketing company founded by her father more than 40 years ago, has waged a lengthy battle against the peanut butter firm, claiming it never properly obtained rights to the Skippy trademark from her family.
She made her latest move Friday when her company sued the manufacturer of Skippy peanut butter. CPC International Inc., in federal court in Alexandria. Tibbetts' suit alleges that the peanut butter manufacturer's contined use of the name infringes on her trademark rights and constitutes unfair competition with her company.
Not so, claimed CPC officials at the food manufacturer's Englewood Cliffs, N.J., headquarters. "Skippy is a registered trademark of CPC International Inc.," a spokesman said. "The name has been used on peanut and other products for nearly 50 years."
He said CPC will fight the lawsuit "and defend its rights to the Skippy (trade) mark vigorously."
Tibbetts' firm markets pens, dolls, pencils and a host of other products under the Skippy name, the suit says.
The complicated legal affairs behind the Skippy trademark are in marked contrast to Crosby's Skippy.In the 1930s, according to the suit, Skippy helped boost sales for the then-new cereal Wheaties, which was a sponsor for a Skippy radio show. The strip helped actor Jackie Cooper, who played Skippy in a box office smash of the same name to become a child star. A Skippy exhibit was one of the most popular at the 1933-34 Chicago World's fair.
"Indeed Skippy had become by 1933 a child's folk hero, not unlike Peter Pan," according to the suit.
In fact, the current legal battle had its origins in a disagreement between the manufacturer of Peter Pan peanut butter and San Francisco businessman Joseph L. Rosefield.
When Rosefield, who developed a manufacturing process for Peter Pan peanut butter, had a falling out with the company, he began selling his own peanut butter in 1934 under the name Skippy.
Rosefield's first request for trademark rights to the name were turned down in 1934 after a successful challenge by Crosby's company, the suit says. But according to the suit, Rosefield's company continued to sell peanut butter under the Skippy name and improperly obtained trademark rights to the name in late 1948. In early 1949, Crosby was committed to a mental hospital where he remained until his death in 1964.
For years, Tibbetts didn't know the whereabouts of her father until his obituary appeared in the New York Times. She said Crosby died on his birthday at the age of 74.
Ever since, Tibbetts has been trying to sort out the comic strip creator's complicated legal troubles. In 1958, her suit says, Rosefield sold the rights to Skippy to the company that eventually evolved into the present manufacturer.
Her suit asks for a permanent injuction banning the peanut butter maker's use of the name, for an order to cancel its trademark rights and for unspecified damages.
Tibbetts says she plans to continue her quest. "Skippy means to me the little boy inside every man," she said. "My brother's named Skippy and people have contacted me from all over the country to tell me they have the nickname Skippy."