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The Strange Tale of Toronto’s ‘Counterfeit’ Giant Rubber Duckie

This duck has been around.

by Jordan Pearson
Jun 1 2017, 6:56pm

Image: Flickr/hiromitsu morimoto

A giant inflatable yellow duck will be chilling on Toronto's waterfront this July thanks to a summer festival that will coincide with Canada's 150th birthday. But there's a catch: a Dutch artist is claiming that the duck is rightfully his, and the monster-sized bath toy that will soon grace Toronto is a counterfeit.

According to a press release sent to reporters by the studio of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, the Redpath Waterfront Festival rented their duck from Craig Samborski, whom Hofman alleges has been "using our patterns, our design, and our intellectual property" to profit off of the duck since 2014. So, what's going on here?

The acrimonious tale of the giant duck does indeed go back to 2014. At that time, Hofman—whose other works include giant stuffed animals—had been licensing his giant duck to events all over the world since 2007. (The largest of his ducks is 32 metres tall.) The landing page for Studio Florentijn Hofman's website features a photo of the duck.

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Hofman's MO was, reportedly, to not actually send a constructed duck to these locations, but to send plans that required the event runners to build it locally. In 2014, Samborski's company, Draw Events, ran a tall ships festival in Los Angeles and allegedly contracted with Hofman to provide plans for his duck. This is where it gets hairy.

Samborski said in a phone interview that he paid Hofman to provide the plans, but what he got were more like artist's sketches—and the duck was the wrong size. Hofman has stated in previous interviews that Samborski never paid him, but Samborski disagrees. Regardless, Samborski said, nobody would build from Hofman's plans, and so he and his company had to design their own plans for a giant duck identical to Hofman's, from scratch, and build it. This is Samborski's duck, which will be in Toronto and which he maintains is not the same as Hofman's.

Hofman tells a different story. According to the artist, he sent Samborski a pattern for the duck in 2014, which was designed to be cut out locally and used to build for the inflatable. This constitutes the whole work, Hofman said in an interview over the phone, and he purposely gives local teams the freedom to design the pontoon structure however they please. Hofman also holds the copyright to the patterns for his rubber duck in the US. According to Hofman, Samborski is using his pattern.

"If you look at our duck and see the pattern lines all around it, and you check his duck, you see exactly our patterns," Hofman said. "Nobody has copyright on a rubber duck, but we hold the copyright on our pattern, and that's what he's using."

In 2015, Samborski brought his duck to Philadelphia. Hofman was not pleased and took to the media to air his grievances. Hofman has, rather sourly, also accused Brazilian anti-corruption protesters of copying his duck. Now, Samborski's duck is coming to Toronto, and so too are Hofman's allegations that the inflatable is a counterfeit.

"We've gone through the proper legal challenge for trademarking our duck—its logo and presence at festivals—and Mr. Hoffman hasn't done that," Samborski said in a phone interview. Samborski has indeed trademarked "an exhibit featuring a large rubber duck floating on a natural body of water at a community waterfront festival," and a logo. Trademarks are designed to protect a company's brand, and copyright is meant to protect works. Samborski holds the trademark, but Hofman holds the copyright.

Redpath Waterfront Festival couldn't be reached for comment in time for publication.

The gigantic duck cost $71,000 to bring to Toronto, Samborski said, and it will visit five other waterfronts beside Toronto while it's in Canada for that price.

The Ontario government contributed upwards of $120,000 to the festival in order to put on their programming, which includes the duck, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport told Motherboard in a phone call. The government played no role in renting the duck itself.

"It's a tough issue when you're based in Holland and some cowboy in America does this"

"We come in on a truck, it's fully built and assembled, it comes with a crew, we inflate it and provide insurance for it and manage it—it's a completely turnkey operation from the company that rents it from us," Samborski said. "That's not the case with Mr. Hofman."

"We are deeply saddened that the Canadian people have to pay for the actions of Mr. Samborski," Kim Enbers, a spokesperson for the studio, said in a statement sent to reporters. "In fact, we feel that it is the antithesis of what we assume the Canada 150 celebrations should be all about. Had a Canadian government official tried to contact us, we would have provided the real duck. It is unfortunate this due diligence wasn't completed."

Samborski said he isn't aware of any legal challenges by the studio, and expects the inflatable duck to be bobbing up and down in Toronto's waters by July without any hassle.

According to Hofman, the studio considered pursuing legal action against Samborski, although ultimately decided it was too expensive. "It's a tough issue when you're based in Holland and some cowboy in America does this," he said. "We're not Gucci or Prada, and we don't have a department for suing," he said.

At this point, a calming bath with a real rubber duckie might be more appropriate than a giant inflatable one on the waterfront.

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UPDATE: This piece was updated to include comment from Florentijn Holland.