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Downey v. General Foods Corp.

New York Court of Appeals
31 N.Y.2d 56, 334 N.Y.S.2d 874, 286 N.E.2d 257 (1972)


Facts

In February 1965, airline pilot John Downey (plaintiff) wrote General Foods Corp. (defendant) suggesting it use variations of the word “wiggly” to market Jell-O to children. General Foods sent Downey an idea submittal form, which he completed and submitted. Downey explained that his own children did not particularly like Jell-O until his wife started calling it “wiggle-y.” Downey claimed he sent two more letters suggesting other variations including “Mr. Wiggley, Wiggle, Wiggle-e.” General Foods sent Downey a letter purportedly signed by a vice-president, acknowledging submission of the form but stating it had no interest in his suggestion. Four months later, General Foods introduced a Jell-O product called “Mr. Wiggle.” Downey sued, claiming General Foods misappropriated his idea. General Foods countered that it had already developed the concept and name. The vice-president said in her deposition that she had never seen Downey’s submission. Instead, her assistant stamped her signature on acknowledgment letters and submissions were kept in a locked cabinet. The assistant testified she had no contact with the advertising firm that developed the “Mr. Wiggle” concept, and had never discussed the idea with anyone. The advertising executives said they began developing the “Mr. Wiggle” concept in May 1965 in response to a competing Pillsbury product marketed toward children called “Jiggly.” Downey had already submitted his idea by that time, but the advertising firm had first recommended an advertising campaign targeting children six years earlier. In addition, General Foods used “wiggle” in some form in a 1959 television ad and a 1960 newspaper ad. The parties both requested summary judgment. The trial court denied both motions and General Foods appealed, arguing Downey could not recover for an idea that was not original or novel. The appellate court affirmed, but granted General Foods leave to appeal the question to New York’s highest appellate court.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Fuld, C.J.)

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