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Small Seattle design firm takes on Disney

Listen to Small Seattle design firms takes on Disney and Target

How far would you go to protect a product you created?

Would you sacrifice your salary for it? Would you sell your office space and spend countless hours dealing with attorneys to defend your original idea?

That’s what the owners of a small design studio in Seattle are doing.

A design company called Modern Dog is suing Disney, Target and the Jaya Apparel group, claiming the big dogs stole their artwork, printed it on t-shirts and sold it without their permission.

Designers Robynne Raye and Michael Strassburger started Modern Dog after they graduated from Western Washington University in 1987.

“We had no idea that 25 years later we would actually still be a company,” says Raye. “We thought we would just do this until while we figured out how to get a real job. It was maybe 10 years into doing it all of a sudden I realized ‘oh, this is a real job.'”

Over the years, Modern Dog created graphics, posters, and packaging for many companies – from small non-profits and theaters in Seattle to larger companies like Swatch, Coca-Cola and K2 Snowboards. Their biggest break was designing snowboards and advertising exhibits for K2.

The company also published a book in 2008 entitled “Modern Dog: 20 Years of Poster Art.” The team used friends’ real dogs as inspiration to draw their graphic images.

They believe their cute, stylized drawings of dogs are worth protecting with a copyright infringement lawsuit, even if that means losing everything they own.

I talked with Raye one day after she completed the sale of her design studio in the Greenwood neighborhood.

“It really was the only asset I had that I could liquidate quickly,” she says.

“My partner and I have gone several months without paychecks. It’s definitely affected our life. I feel really strongly that I’m not the kind of person who could walk away from something when it gets difficult. I just think it’s the right thing to do. I’ve always been that little nerdy kid who would point out ‘you can’t treat someone like that.'”

Raye is unable to talk the lawsuit filed against Disney and the other companies in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

According to federal court documents, in July of 2010 Target and Disney announced a joint marketing venture described as “New D-Signed Tween Fashion Line.” Target agreed to promote Disney film and video productions by selling “D-Signed” merchandise.

In May of 2011 Disney came out with a fashion line and products related to something they called “Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure.” The collection includes a t-shirt with a graphic array of 27 dog images. In the suit, Modern Dog claims their images were clearly ripped off. They claim their dog images were merely flipped for the t-shirt.


Artwork created by Modern Dog for their 2008 book “Modern Dog: 20 Years of Poster Art.” Image courtesy

I’ve seen images of the dogs as they appear on the t-shirt sold at Target, under the creative direction of Disney and its partners including the Jaya Apparel Group. Jaya is the private company behind the expensive jeans “7 For All Mankind.” The images are strikingly similiar .

“It’s odd when you see it,” says Raye. “I’m forgiving as long as no one’s made a bunch of money. It changes as soon as something’s been used without your permission to make money. It changes everything.”

Disney, Target and Jaya Apparel group have not returned my calls. Generally, large companies will not comment on an ongoing lawsuit.

In order to keep pursuing what they believe “is right,” friends of Modern Dog have set up a site to raise money for their legal bills.Supporters have raised about $18,000 so far .


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