ROME — A multimillion-dollar court case is raging between Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's media empire and Western Kentucky University over the right to dress up in a goofy red costume and dance in public like a madman.
The university argues that one of Italy's most popular TV shows ripped off its bubbly sports mascot Big Red and turned it into a character called Gabibbo that is the symbol of a hit satirical news show.
Western Kentucky and the company that licenses Big Red are suing Berlusconi's Mediaset company for $250 million, an estimate of how much Gabibbo has earned through "Striscia la Notizia," or "Slithering News," a book, a No. 1 album of songs and other enterprises.
Big Red and Gabibbo have hugely different roles: One hypes up the crowd at college sporting events; the other cracks wise and takes up consumer complaints from viewers on a Mediaset channel.
But the physical resemblance is there, in the giant red characters with gaping mouths, swollen bellies and dinner-plate white eyes.
To make the case to Italians, the Western Kentucky mascot appeared at a news conference Monday ahead of a court hearing this week.
"I'm very happy to be in Italy. I've discovered I'm very popular already — some big TV company has copied me," Big Red said, after high-fiving photographers.
A Western Kentucky representative and Steve Crossland, whose company handles the Big Red licensing rights, provided copies of the 1979 design for the character. Crossland said the lawsuit was launched in 2002, after he and the university got word of their rival.
"We view this case and what's going on as if Mickey Mouse were being pirated or the Nike swoosh was being used illegally," Crossland said.
Leo Damerini, a spokesman for Striscia la Notizia, says Gabibbo was trademarked in Italy in 1990 and claims Western Kentucky didn't do so for Big Red until 1991. He has a harder time explaining why show creator Antonio Ricci said in a 1991 interview that he copied Gabibbo from Kentucky.
Ricci told Novella 2000 magazine: "There was this puppet called Big Red who was the mascot of an American basketball team. The team is Western Kentucky University. It plays in minor tournaments, but the puppet was cute."
He added: "Big Red became Gabibbo."
Damerini argued that Ricci was joking. "It wasn't an admission," he said.
"Their mascot is silent and conceptually different: He's mute and moves along the sidelines of basketball courts," Damerini said. "Gabibbo is something else. He talks, he's a sort of journalist, he does investigations, he's a real and proper character."
Crossland Enterprises Inc. licensed the rights to market Big Red in Italy in early 2002 to the company Adfra, which is selling reflective safety bibs bearing the mascot's image. Mediaset countersued, accusing Adfra of exploiting Gabibbo's image.
The case is not likely to be resolved quickly. Italian justice is notoriously slow, and the two sides are far apart.
— as a few words from each of the characters reveal.
Gabibbo (played by Gero Caldarelli) had this to say: "To attack and destroy Gabibbo would mean destroying the dreams of many kids. This is bad, very bad."
Big Red (played by 20-year-old Western Kentucky student Bradford Connell Jr.) had his own take: "Just to think that there's another mascot who's copying it.... It's wrong."