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Taco Bell Loses Copyright Case

January 22, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Taco Bell and its famous talking Chihuahua lost a dogfight at the Supreme Court Tuesday.

The court, without comment, declined to get involved in a copyright battle over who came up with the idea for the fast-food chain spokesdog.

Taco Bell had urged the court to throw out claims by two Michigan men that the Mexican food restaurants stole their idea for a talking Chihuahua.

In a rare bit of whimsy amid the dry claims of copyright law, Taco Bell’s lawyer, veteran Supreme Court litigator Carter Phillips, began his legal brief by noting, ``This is a tale of two dogs.″

The Michigan men claim they pitched the idea of using a cartoon Chihuahua to sell Taco Bell food more than a year before the company began airing its dog ads in 1997.

The Taco Bell ads, since discontinued, featured a real Chihuahua who appeared to say in Spanish, ``Yo quiero Taco Bell,″ or, ``I want Taco Bell.″ The ad campaign became wildly popular, with spinoff stuffed toys, T-shirts and other products.

Joseph Shields and Thomas Rinks allege Taco Bell advertising executives stole their idea for a character called ``Psycho Chihuahua″ after making a verbal agreement to use the men’s design.

Taco Bell claims the company decided to use a talking dog only after TBWA/Chiat Day, a much larger advertising company, proposed it independently.

The men sued under state law in 1998, alleging Taco Bell breached its contract and wrongly made money from the ad campaign. A federal judge dismissed the case the following year after finding that federal copyright law trumped those state law claims.

A federal appeals court reversed that decision last year, and reinstated the case.

Taco Bell then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Taco Bell owns or franchises thousands of Mexican-style restaurants worldwide from its base in Irvine, Calif. The company is a subsidiary of Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc., which also owns Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

___

The case is Taco Bell Corp. v. Wrench LLC, 01-701.