Dutch Rubber Duck Artist Cries Foul Over Giant Philly Rubber Duck

Florentijn Hofman says his creation has been stolen.

Dutch rubber duck artist Florentijn Hofman with his giant hippo sculpture floating in the background. Photo: Steve Stills

Renown Dutch rubber duck artist Florentijn Hofman with his giant hippo sculpture floating in the background. Photo: Steve Stills

You’d think that a giant rubber duck could waddle its way into Philadelphia without inciting controversy or starting a potential international legal war. But that is not the case. We learned this lesson on Monday afternoon when an email popped up in our inbox with the ominous subject line: “Unauthorized rubber duck project in Philadelphia.” The author was Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who is none too happy with the giant 61-foot, 11-ton rubber duck set to visit our shores the last weekend in June as part of the Tall Ships festival.

Hofman’s ducks have appeared more than 20 times all over the world, from Azerbaijan to New Zealand to, er, Pittsburgh. Usually, when an exhibitor wants to display Hofman’s giant rubber duck sculpture, Hofman doesn’t actually send them a duck. Instead, he sends them drawings and instructions, and the exhibitor finds an inflatables fabricator who can make the duck according to Hofman’s specifications.

Hofman contracted with a company to bring his giant rubber duck to the Tall Ships festival in Los Angeles last year. He sent his drawings and specifications, and, indeed, a giant rubber duck did appear on the Los Angeles waterfront. (The people behind Philadelphia’s Tall Ships festival are some of the same people behind last year’s Tall Ships festival in Los Angeles.)

The producers of that Tall Ships festival used the giant rubber duck to promote their event, billing it as the “world’s largest rubber duck,” no doubt attracting plenty of families to the festival who might not have come just to see the Battleship Iowa. And still today, the giant rubber duck is the first thing you see on the Tall Ships LA website, and if you click through, the giant rubber duck that appeared in Los Angeles is credited to Hofman.

Hofman says he first learned that the giant rubber duck was appearing at Philadelphia’s Tall Ships festival on Monday, after he received emails from Philadelphians saying how excited they were that his artwork was coming to their city.

“I was shocked,” Hofman tells us on the phone from his office in Holland. “They don’t have permission to show my duck again. And they are charging money for tickets. I want this rubber duck for the whole world to see. It is sad. They make it into this joke, but the rubber duck is not a joke. It is serious artwork which connects all people in the world.”

The way Hofman tells it, he was never even paid for the use of his duck at the Los Angeles festival, and now the organizers have taken the exact same duck and moved it to Philadelphia, using it to promote the festival here in much the same way that they did in 2014 on the West Coast. Just look at the Tall Ships Philadelphia home page. And Hofman says that they are doing so without him agreeing to it. “They are basically saying ‘Fuck you,'” he adds.

But Tall Ships Philadelphia producer Craig Samborksi, who also produced the Tall Ships LA fest, says not so fast.

Samborski claims that Hofman was paid for Tall Ships LA — he thinks it was $50,000 — but admits that Hofman may not have received his final payment. But, more importantly, Samborski says that the duck used in the Los Angeles event and now in Philadelphia isn’t even Hofman’s duck.

“It’s not his duck,” Samborski insists. “It’s just another large inflatable duck.”

According to Samborski, Hofman was paid to deliver a set of engineered blueprints that would allow Samborski’s team to build Hofman’s giant rubber duck.

“He did not do that,” says Samborski. “He provided what I would classify as artist sketches. They weren’t engineered plans. They were line drawings. And we asked for an 18-meter-high duck, and he sent plans for a 12-meter-high duck.”

And so, Samborski says, he hired people to come up with engineered plans for an 18-meter-high rubber duck, and then he hired others to build the thing.

A duck is a duck is a duck? Left: "Authorized" giant rubber duck, courtesy Florentijn Hofman. Right: "Unauthorized" giant rubber duck, courtesy Tall Ships Philadelphia.

A duck is a duck is a duck? Left: “Authorized” giant rubber duck, courtesy Florentijn Hofman. Right: “Unauthorized” giant rubber duck, courtesy Tall Ships Philadelphia.

“The two companies I went to wouldn’t even build it based on his plans,” he says. “It wasn’t structurally safe.”

But what about the Tall Ships LA website, which clearly credits Hofman with the duck?

“Ah, thank you for pointing that out,” says Samborski. “I am going to make sure that’s changed now. We fully believed we were going to get his duck for that event, and once we didn’t, I guess we never changed the site.”

Samborski adds that he doesn’t have a contract with Hofman in any event, explaining that the company that produced Tall Ships LA — a company with which he was involved — is now defunct. It was that company that had a contract with Hofman.

When we told Hofman of Samborski’s claims, namely that the duck set to appear in Philadelphia is not his duck, he was incredulous.

“It’s the exact same duck!” he yelled over the phone. “I am furious. He is just trying to score. This is very tricky and cheeky of him. He is a dishonest man.”

“Those are some awful things to say,” Samborski retorts. “If I feel anything, it is a certain amount of buyer’s remorse. What we got was not what we were told we were getting. He was paid a very hefty sum of money for not delivering what he promised. And now this has turned into a very unpleasant situation.”

Unpleasant, indeed.

Hofman tells us that depending on what happens next, he may have to get his lawyer involved.

“I generally don’t personally believe in suing,” he says. “I’m an artist, and I like to make great work without bringing negative attention on this super-happy global artwork. But they are just cheating, showing my work without approval. And so, we may have to take legal actions.”

Well, good luck, says prominent Philadelphia intellectual property attorney Jordan LaVine of Flaster Greenberg. Putting aside the issue of the contract, which was, according to Samborski, made between Hofman and a now-defunct company, the issue is really one of copyright protection.

“He is essentially claiming a copyright in large rubber ducks,” observes LaVine, whose clients include the New York Times, Martha Stewart and Ancestry.com. “The touchstone question here is, does his work have enough originality that copyright would attach to it. A rubber duck is an extremely common thing, and making a very large one does not necessarily give someone copyright rights in that artistic expression. This just looks like a standard rubber ducky.”

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.

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  • Jennifer Neugebauer

    I think Ernie needs to weigh in on this.

    • Kelly Ann

      Right…where is he?!

  • judethom

    “Just another large inflatable duck” in NOT art.

  • GT12

    GOOSE!

  • laurenalice

    Just spray paint it green and white! E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES.

  • Dan Roth

    Actually, the “Unauthorized” one looks better.

    • Angela

      I’m pretty sure it’s just better lighting.

  • Jim Samuel

    So if Jordan Levine is right about this, any one of us can make a sculpture of a large clothespin without infringing on Claus Oldenberg, correct?

    • Eric the Red

      Yes. You would be called unoriginal though.

    • Bobby

      The Oldenberg piece has at least some degree of expression– the use of steel, the curvature of the pin legs, etc.. The Hofman duck does not have any of these unique expressions, other than size.

  • Pat McCann

    I say paint it to look like the Phillie’s Phanatic. That way Ruben Amaro will find a way to sink it.

  • Traci Zahn

    The dig on Pittsburgh is cute. Are you jealous we got it first? That we are a forward thinking arts town? Art is art. Respect the artist, respect the work, respect the patrons.

    • PeopleOfPhiladelphia

      I can assure you we are not jealous of anything your city has to offer.

      • Doug Thomas

        I’m from Pittsburgh and I love the duck, but I would like to say that if you haven’t been to Philly you shouldn’t talk down about it. It’s a fantastic town and I love it.

        Pittsburgh may be a forward thinking arts town, but we don’t have a gigantic clothespin from Oldenburg, a LOVE sculpture from Robert Indiana or all of the awesome (though worn down) game pieces in that courtyard by City Hall. They have the ever iconic Philly Museum of Art…iconic for both it’s steps and it’s collection. They have a Rodin Museum too, plus the nations first ever zoo.

        Plus they have Reading Terminal Market. It’s one of the best markets that I’ve ever been to. It’s so much better than the Strip District (and I really love the Strip). Sssssooooo much food and happiness.

        Not all Pittsburghers hate Philly and I’m sure not all Philadelphians hate Pittsburgh….it’s those that have never traveled to either city that really hate the other.

    • Bobby

      Art requires expression. The “zoom” function is not expression.

  • myeaglesHaveAplan

    this guy can go duck himself

  • Justin Walsh

    “They make it into this joke, but the rubber duck is not a joke. It is serious artwork which connects all people in the world.”

    Uh huh.

  • Bev

    Not quite ubiquitous. His original idea. When things are so obvious it is easy to deny their originality. Please pay him the money! How many ducks of this size have I ever seen?

    • Bobby

      Rubber ducks are entirely ubiquitous. Further, if enlarging an object is all that it takes to constitute expression, what is to protect artists from some Hofman-esque faux-artist going around and blowing up original works and claiming (not fair use) UNIQUE copyright?

  • Johnny Domino

    Duck you, sucker.

  • C. Sane

    Pay the artist: you consigned him for the work. This is flatly unethical, lowdown behavior.

    • Bobby

      Pay him for what? No artistic work was done.

      • C. Sane

        He came up with the idea and did the design–which the company even *partially* paid for. Then they decided to just steal it and hire people to carry out his design themselves.

        • Bobby

          Peter Ganine came up with the idea in the 1940’s when he patented the rubber duck. The patent has since expired and now belongs to the public.

          Since all Hofman did was enlarge a piece of public domain, he didn’t create an expression sufficient to justify copyright protection. If you think his works are worth of copyright protection, why don’t you go take a Thomas Kinkade, blow it up to the size of a billboard, and try and get copyright protection. The U.S. Copyright Office will laugh you out of the building.

          No expression = no copyright protection. The idea of blowing up an existing expression does not constitute a protectable work.

          https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/102

          “(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”

  • SwampVA172

    Not only did Tall Ships LA credit Hoffman; so did the L.A. Times. So was it Samborski’s duck then, or wasn’t it?

  • SwampVA172

    There’s about 20 of these things worldwide. It wasn’t enough for Samborski to replicate it; he had to enlarge it, then promote it as unique in the name of “bringing cultures together,” which was Hofman’s artistic intent. Whatever the legal issues, all these “tall ship” events Samborski runs are really his rubber duck show. Considering the effort behind sailing and maintaining these ships, I think it’s “art” misplaced.

  • melville1

    Who gives a flying, or floating, duck? It’s a 2-second, pretty lame sight gag.

  • Bobby

    The rubber duck belongs to the public. Peter Ganine’s patent on the rubber duck expired long ago.

    Enlarging an expired patent does not constitute expression, thus, not entitled to copyright protection.

  • nissi-n-philli

    What part of “his idea, his duck.” Pay the Hofman his money and stop being so trifling!!!

  • AuldLochinvar

    Perhaps the legal question is: Can the shape of a rubber duck be considered unobvious? Or is there something about the internal structure that is patentable or subject to copyright?

    As a fan of W.B.Yeats, I object to movies and housing developments that use the name “Innisfree” for places that are very far from ever hearing the sound of a linnet’s wings.

  • mz

    No one questioned why was the original company defunct now? Sounds like a lot of tricks that Samborski used, in anticipation of this problem – because he knowingly did not pay the $50,000 in full. Regardless of whether the duck is art or no art, people don’t see a problem in the series of tactics that Samborski used?

    First, Hofman is an artist. Why would Samborski expect engineering blueprints in the first place?

    Second, the giant rubber duck has appeared in many places in the world. Why is Hofman particularly furious about this particular one? Why didn’t those people have this “engineering blueprint” vs. “artistic drawing” problem and not pay Hofman in full?

    Third, when Samborski got other companies to build it, he chose to build it exactly the way Hofman’s duck looks. Do a Google Search on rubber ducks, they do NOT all look the same. Some are uglier than others. How pointy the body, how far apart the eyes, how big the mouth, all contribute to its look. Hofman’s duck happens to look more round and appealing, which is part of the reason it draws more crowd. Imagine a huge duck that’s as ugly as some of the search results; I wouldn’t go see it.

    Fourth, that company for LA’s festival is “defunct” now. So the current company has no contract with Hofman, and there’s no way to find that old company. This is a tactic. Samborski is the organizer for both.

    Fifth, Samborski said, “I guess” we forgot to change the website. He guesses? It’s been a whole year. He credited Hofman on his website so that he can draw in more crowd and money.

    All this seems like Samborski already hired a lawyer since he didn’t pay the $50,000 in full, in anticipation of Hofman chasing after him later. Then he went through all the tactics to eliminate legal issues, while still marketing the giant duck for his maximum revenue.

    • SDSj

      If you visit the Tall Ships LA web site, you will see that Draw Events produced it. Check out the Tall Ships Philly web site and once again, you’ll see Draw Events listed. If you go to the Draw Events web site, you will see that Samborski is the president. Not sure which company is now defunct. You are correct. It sounds as if he is using some trickery to get out of paying Hofman. Regardless, the event was a complete disaster with a total lack of coordination and communication.

  • nissi-n-philli

    Shame on Philli and it’s il-gotten gains, just look at the poser, at what should be the “height of its life,” shrinking in size!!!!!!!!!!! Quack-quack ………………. U still think a Duck is a Duck, now will the real artist, please blow-up, oops your air-pump is also a facsimalie!!!!!!

  • Richard Finkelstein

    Ok the Festival is now over. I was one of the visitors from out of town. I just today learned of the duck deceipt as the publicity all implied it was THE duck and not a copy. Of course the duck never quite made it. While I loved the city and liked the ships the organizer’s competence seemed dubious throughout from the lack of signage, lack of properly defined lines, and losing the gate key delaying the fest. Opening by a half hour. Even when the gate was unlocked, the entry tent was tied onto the gate. Oops. With the 2 hour wait in the hot sun to return to the Phili side I couldnt help but wonder if pethaps 2 ferries would have been the proper number and wondering whose pocket the savings went into.