If you had a choice, would you prefer to be known as the company that borrowed Princess Diana's image without getting permission, or as the company that shut down all her charities, depriving children with AIDS of medical coverage and making sure the efforts to clean up land mines and cluster bombs come to a screeching halt?To most of us, the question is a no-brainer. But not so for the fine folks at the Franklin Mint -they make those tacky souvenir coins that are hawked on obscure cable channels in the early hours - who either aren't getting any PR advice or are ignoring it in favor of their gung-ho lawyers, who want to make the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund suffer for not wanting the late Princess' image to appear on one of the Mint's trashy trinkets. The facts of the case are simple. In 1998, the Mint decided to exploit Diana's death by creating a Limited Edition Commemorative Plate bearing her likeness. The Fund sued, accusing the Mint of unfair competition, false advertising, and trademark dilution. But that suit was thrown out in 2000 by a US district judge, who said the Princess had done nothing to prevent others from using her image while she was alive. After the suit was dismissed, the Mint filed its own $25 million lawsuit accusing the Fund of acting maliciously, saying it wanted compensation for lost sales, tarnished reputation, and the "embarrassment" it suffered. In response, the Fund froze its grants in order to protect its assets - a decision that will impact more than 100 charities, including HIV/AIDS groups, land mine clearance efforts, and a relief fund for the families of prisoners. The suit is both spurious and stupid. It's spurious because the Mint must know that proving malice is almost impossible - it requires a jury to look into the defendant's heart and believe there was no other conceivable motive for its actions. (Companies that complain about frivolous consumer lawsuits would do well to condemn the even more frivolous suits filed by corporate attorneys.) It's stupid because the damage this vindictive lawsuit will do to the Mint's image is far worse than any previous embarrassment it suffered as a result of the original suit. After the Fund announced it was suspending its grants, the Mint issued a statement, claiming that its lawsuit "is most definitely not a matter of money" and promising to donate damages to charity. Of course, since the Mint has no chance of winning, it will never have to make good on that promise. Meanwhile, the Fund will be out hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, while charities and the children they serve will be out much more than that.
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