These old stories tend to be cautionary tales. Even if they are just the businesses that posted those ads in the back of comic books. These stories always end in the greedy stupid part of the human story. And tragedy all around.
The way the lawyer William Timmons described the case, it was practically a newsreel melodrama, with a helpless widow being menaced by a heartless tycoon. The story began with the widow, whose name is Yolanda Signorelli von Braunhut. She is a onetime heir to the considerable fortune still generated by her husband Harold’s iconic invention, Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys. As her lawyer told it, she was now isolated, cash-starved, often without electricity or running water on a palatial estate on the Potomac River in southern Maryland. Having retreated to a single room in the old mansion, she was prepping for her second freezing winter, barricaded by thick quilts, her bed next to a fireplace stocked with split wood. From this bunker, Signorelli von Braunhut has been waging legal combat against Sam Harwell, chief executive of a big-time toy company whose name seems straight out of a Chuck Jones cartoon: Big Time Toys.
In his tiny office in Sayville, on Long Island, Timmons spoke in clipped, near-noir tones, handing me a five-page summary of the case, eager to executive-produce the plotline. “The heart and soul of this case is trademark infringement,” he said. Signorelli von Braunhut “believes in the concept of justice,” he continued, “and when you have that on your side, then you can get through the day.”
A few years after her husband’s death in 2003, Signorelli von Braunhut licensed out part of the labor of his multimillion dollar Sea-Monkey enterprise, mostly packaging and distribution, to Big Time. If you’ve ever been 8 years old, then you know that Sea-Monkeys arrive in a small plastic aquarium with several small packets that include the tiny brine-shrimp critters, which reanimate once you add water — by way of a secret formula that Signorelli von Braunhut keeps locked in a vault in Manhattan.
The original deal held that Big Time would supply everything except the specially engineered critters — and the accompanying packets, which von Braunhut would manufacture and sell separately to Big Time, which would then bundle the full kits and handle the sales. Also in the contract was a second deal — to buy the company, including the secret formula. It allowed Big Time to pay a straight-up $5 million fee and then $5 million more in installments. Three winters ago, Big Time called up the widow and announced that it considered its previous payments for the packets to be a kind of layaway deal for the company and that, as far as Big Time was concerned, it now owned the Sea-Monkey franchise.
I’ve never understood why this sort of things happens. Business will be doing well, money I made all around, then the person responsible for the business passes away and everybody in contact with the business only thinks of themselves. With the usual result that everybody loses.
I think what happens is that the people who inherit these businesses lose the understanding of the reasons that the business exists at all. These small companies cam about because the founder thought that they could bring something to the world. Rather than taking, they were giving their creativity, effort and work so that they could share with the rest of us. I whatever they made was unique and novel, the market would reward them for what they share. Most of the entrepreneurs, the real ones I’ve met over the years rarely seem to think about the money. It’s always the product.
It’s when the founder is gone and everybody, the family members, the employees, the government all think of the business as only a way to extract money that things go sour. The squabbling will go on even when everybody realizes that the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts, that the experience the company has and it’s customers are the most important thing until the whole thing is ripped to pieces and there is nothing left but an empty building and a lost product. That’s the end game for far too many companies when greed overcomes common sense.