Lucianne Walkowicz might have been excited and encouraged to see that Wisconsin-based American Girl had chosen astronomy as the interest for 2018’s “Girl of the Year” doll.
Walkowicz has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a PhD. in astronomy and has worked on space exploration projects, studied and spoken publicly and extensively about Mars and the star Vega. Walkowicz has given TED talks viewed by millions and is a TED fellow on the staff at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.
American Girl’s 2018 doll is Luciana Vega, an 11-year-old interested in going to Space Camp and becoming the first Mars astronaut.
A doll that inspires more girls to think about space and consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math could only be a good thing, right?
Except that the real-life astronomer claims American Girl itself was more than inspired by those TED talks. A lawsuit accuses American Girl and its parent company, Mattel, of appropriating Walkowicz’s image and identity, without permission.
Beyond the similarities in their first names, Vega is the central star in the constellation Lyra, and a subject of lots of Walkowicz’s research and presentations.
Like Walkowicz, Luciana has medium-long dark hair with a purple streak on the right. She sports holographic boots like those Walkowicz often wears. Her “signature outfit” is a cosmic-patterned dress that resembles one of Walkowicz’s, though the doll’s is pink and the astronomer’s is blue.
The company said it doesn’t discuss pending litigation but issued this statement:
“American Girl takes great pride in creating original characters for girls. We take any allegations to the contrary extremely seriously, and intend to defend the case vigorously.”
Walkowicz has sued American Girl for invasion of privacy, negligence and trademark fraud, seeking compensatory and punitive damages, and a stop to all sales of the Luciana Vega doll and accessories.
American Girl sells the Luciana Vega doll for $110, which includes a paperback book about her time at Space Camp.
The suit says people could easily assume Walkowicz approved the use of the image or was being compensated by American Girl. The unlawful use of the image, according to the suit, makes it harder for Walkowicz to profit from it later if Walkowicz chose to do so.
The lawsuit suggests that similarities between Walkowicz and the doll are no mere coincidence.
It notes that in September 2014, Walkowicz gave a well-publicized TED talk at Monona Terrace in Madison about the Kepler mission to study the constellation Lyra, whose center is the star Vega.
American Girl’s lead designer for the Girl of the Year series, Rebecca DeKuiper, lived near Monona Terrace in 2014, and Walkowicz’s attorney believes she and other American Girl employees attended Walkowicz’s talk and were inspired to use Walkowicz as the basis for a new doll.
In October 2016, Walkowicz was back in Madison taking part in Space Place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and led activities for parents, and did more outreach in Trempealeau and LaCrosse.
American Girl applied for federal trademark registrations for Luciana and Luciana Vega in 2016. According to the lawsuit, the company misled the federal trademark office by not disclosing that the doll and its name were based on, and identified, a particular living person.
“Had they properly disclosed such information, the Defendants would have had tofile a signed, written consent from Lucianne to register the marks,” according to the suit.
According to an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Facebook posts about the doll from friends and family — assuming the astronomer had licensed the image to American Girl — was the first time Walkowicz became aware of the doll.
The case seems to prove imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.
The doll took so much: Walkowicz’s name, look, and life’s work as a scientist — and it felt like a violation, Walkowicz told the Tribune.
“I don’t think it’s flattering for a company to take your life’s work and identity and monetize it for their own purposes.”
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