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Matt Reed was strolling through a fashion trade show in London when a T-shirt display stopped him in his tracks. Reed marched over to the fellow manning the booth, flashed his business card and told him he was confiscating three stands of clothing. The attendant didn’t protest. Reed, a co-founder and business director of Oakland’s Cosmic Debris, had caught him selling a knock-off of the company’s “Emily the Strange” T-shirt. Emily, a coolly confident 13-year old girl with a bad attitude and a posse of black cats, is emblazoned on Cosmic Debris products ranging from watches to tote bags and dresses. For Reed, the experience wasn’t too surprising. Companies from Canada to Taiwan have been trying to cash in on the Emily look, which has gained popularity since the first “Emily the Strange” book was published three years ago. And that’s kept Cosmic Debris and its lawyers scrambling to protect the company’s trademarks and copyrights. The company is now in negotiations with a film company for production of an animated Emily movie, and Reed expects that could spur further counterfeiting. “Everything seems like a mountain in front of us,” Reed said. “We’ve climbed a few and have more to go.” Cosmic Debris’ legal battles illustrate the problems a small company can face when it launches a popular product. While big corporations have plenty of resources to register their trademarks and copyrights, startups can find it financially difficult to protect their ideas. But for Cosmic Debris, the investment has been crucial for its survival. “Intellectual property is the lifeblood of the company,” said Cosmic Debris attorney Susan Hollander, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips’ Palo Alto office. “If they don’t protect it and prevent others from using it, that devastates them.” FOLLOWING FASHION In an interview last month, Hollander and Cosmic Debris co-founders Reed and Rob Reger talked about the 7-year-old company’s history. Tucked in an Oakland warehouse, Cosmic Debris’ offices are filled with Emily posters, paintings, books and even an Emily clock. While designers hunkered in their cubicles creating next fall’s line of products, Reger laid out the latest issue of V Magazine, a fashion publication. It includes a two-page photo captioned “the Emilies,” which features eight women with the same shoulder length hair and unsmiling features, all wearing dark clothes and a couple of them holding black cats. Reger pointed out that all the women have Emily’s trademark shine — a white flash across her bangs — on their hair. While Hollander agreed that the spread is great publicity, she said they would have to send a letter to let the publishers know Emily is trademarked. “It’s not a technical infringement,” she said. “But we don’t want Emily to become generic.” Cosmic Debris now has the photo on its Web site. Reger, the company’s creative director, started Cosmic Debris as a T-shirt business out of his garage. Another designer came on board, and together they came up with a formula for a successful Emily T-shirt: “Cute, crossed with a bad attitude and carefully shaded word play that connotes Emily’s independent character,” Reger said. “Emily didn’t search to belong,” one T-shirt says. “She searched to be lost.” While Emily is the most famous of Cosmic Debris’ three brands, its other characters have also slipped into popular culture. T-shirts, stickers and other products with its “Yum Pop” characters — which include a panda and a rabbit — have appeared in television shows and movies like “American Pie 2″ and “Dude, Where’s My Car?” The company says its mission is to “pollute the universe with cosmic debris: cheeky clothing with fun graphics and edgy and innovated designs.” As its products have spread into international markets, so too have its legal battles. Cosmic Debris’ first major dispute was with Zellers, a Canadian chain of department stores that infringed a Cosmic Girls product. Reed said that case, which settled for an undisclosed amount, set a precedent and helped the company establish its trademarks around the world. The company has also won infringement suits against Canadian retailer Dylex Ltd. and E & E Hosiery Inc. involving the Yum Pop designs. A similar case is pending in New York federal court against Withit Ltd., a company in the United Kingdom that sells clothing and other products. Also, Cosmic Debris has sent a cease and desist letter to Payless ShoeSource Inc. claiming it was infringing a Yum Pop design. The litigation has helped Cosmic Debris pay for many of its trademark registrations, which have cost about $100,000. Reed said it costs $1,500 to $2,500 to register a mark for each category — such as print and apparel — in each territory. And the company has trademarks on several categories in 12 territories. But the trademarks haven’t kept look-alike products off the market. Cosmic Debris has hired investigators in Taiwan, Singapore, Canada and England to track down infringers, and it also relies on its licensees and distributors to watch the market. But the kids who buy Cosmic Debris products have been the company’s most important defense against infringement. Youngsters from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong have sent the company e-mails to let them know someone is marketing knock-offs of their products. Cosmic Debris asks them to either send in a photograph of the item or purchase it, the cost of which is reimbursed. “The kids are our biggest tip-off,” Reed said. “They’re very protective.” While Cosmic Debris has gone a long way in establishing its trademarks and copyrights, the company isn’t dropping its guard against those who would like to copy its characters. “Everywhere we go we have to find the first battle to fight,” Reed said, “and show we won’t be pushed around.”

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