Mr. Smiley's Sad End

Plus: Cruisin' Au Naturel

By Buck Wolf

April 19, 2001 — Harvey Ball gave the world a smiley face, and all he got was a lousy $45.

Ball, who died last week at the age of 79, created a 1970s sensation. One December night in 1963, from a deep well of creative genius, this graphic designer sketched the first yellow smiley face — which now bears that inspirational slogan, "Have a Nice Day!"

Imagine the Partridge Family era without Mr. Smiley emblazoned on bumper stickers, coffee mugs, boxer shorts and yo-yos. It would be as if John Travolta never danced the hustle in dangerously overstretched polyester.

'Tough Luck, It's in the Public Domain'

But Ball didn't have a nice day when he contacted the U.S. Patent Office. "By 1973, the smiley face was everywhere," he told The Wolf Files in 1998. "They told me, 'Tough luck, it's in the public domain.'"

At first, Ball let it slide. He had created this symbol of cheer as part of an in-house morale program for a Massachusetts insurance company. "I never thought it was my ticket to easy street," he says. He took his meager freelance fee and went on with his life.

What really burned Ball was that a French entrepreneur Franklin Loufrani trademarked the smiley in 80 foreign countries and threatened to sue any U.S. company that exported Mr. Smiley without paying a royalty.

"The guy even claims he created the smiley," said Ball, momentarily losing Mr. Smiley's perpetual cheerfulness. "He's got a lot of nerve."

"I'd like the money," he told The Wolf Files. "But I want the credit, too."

But the World War II veteran — who won a Bronze Star for his heroism at the Battle of Okinawa — resisted bringing a suit against Loufrani, even as Mr. Smiley's insipid yellow grin showed up in Wal-Mart ads. Instead, he settled for seeing Mr. Smiley commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp.

Ball also instituted World Smile Corp. to compete with Loufrani, selling prints of Mr. Smiley with his signature for charity. He ran a modest art and advertising company in Worcester, Mass., and is survived by a wife, three sons and a daughter.