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In this undated photo, Tony Horn poses with puppets he made, which he said are inspired by Clint Eastwood. Jeff Dunham, a comedian, is suing horn, claiming that the puppets look too much like his puppet character, "Walter."

Copyrights for dummies: Md. puppet maker puzzled over suit by comedian

A lawsuit already involving Comedy Central star Jeff Dunham and inflammatory puppets couldn’t stand to get much juicier.

And then Clint Eastwood got involved.

Well, not really — or at least not yet — but that’s the latest twist in the case of a Maryland puppet maker being sued by Dunham’s trust for alleged copyright infringement with a ventriloquist dummy he is selling on eBay.

Only that dummy isn’t a replica of Dunham’s well-known Walter figure, defendant Tony Horn said — it’s supposed to resemble Clint Eastwood.

Ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham performing onstage with his Walter puppet. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

Ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham’s “Walter” puppet.

Horn, who lives in Cumberland, makes ventriloquist dummies and sells them on eBay. According to a lawsuit filed in California Monday, Horn had been improperly reproducing and selling the comedian’s trademarked Walter dummy, which has appeared alongside Dunham on Comedy Central cable television network telecasts and in stage shows.

Last June, Horn posted a picture of a dummy to his Facebook page asking his friends to “compair [sic] my figure to Walter.” Ironically, when a friend commented that the lawyers would be on their way, Horn responded, “I highly doubt any lawyer would be interested.”

 ‘Walter Replica’ made

In February, Horn wrote on Facebook that he had completed his “Walter Replica” and added the dummy to his private collection, specifying that it wasn’t for sale.

But despite this dummy’s near-perfect resemblance to one Horn advertises on eBay — from the location of the wrinkles lining its face to the color of the bowtie it sports — the defendant is adamant that they are different creations and that he is not selling a version of the “Walter Replica.”

1a Puppet  Horn Eastwood1

Tony Horn’s puppet. (submitted photo)

Horn acknowledges that the figure on eBay resembles Walter, but “you can clearly see it’s Clint Eastwood,” he said. Next to photos of the dummy in various poses is an image of Eastwood frowning, which Horn said is supposed to emphasize their connection.

Earlier this year, eBay pulled a listing of one of the dummies after a complaint by Dunham, but Horn put it back up soon after. “I did put it back up because it never infringed on Jeff Dunham’s property,” Horn said. “If anything, maybe Clint Eastwood would have a problem with it, but I don’t think Clint Eastwood would complain.”

Jim Astrachan, an intellectual property lawyer with Astrachan Gunst & Thomas who also teaches trademark law, said that Horn even keeping a replica in his private collection is problematic.

“Simply by making a copy of it, he has in fact violated the author’s rights under copyright. Then arguably by posting that on his Facebook page, he has made a public display, which is also a violation,” said Astrachan, an occasional columnist with The Daily Record and the chair of its editorial advisory board.

Trouble proving damages

The lawsuit is demanding monetary compensation for the alleged infringement, but while Dunham may be entitled to recover profits of any sales of similar-looking dummies, the plaintiff will still have difficulty proving further damages, Astrachan said .

“My guess it that the plaintiff just got fed up and found somebody to file a lawsuit for him without really thinking too far down the road how [he’s] going to prove damages,” he added.

Horn was of the same mindset. “There’s nothing I can do — I’m just a little guy — to hurt Jeff Dunham and he’s going out of his way to destroy me and my family,” he said.

The lawsuit claims that Horn was sent a cease-and-desist letter, dated Jan. 13, 2015, but Horn said he never received it or was ever contacted by Dunham or a representative. In fact, he said, he first heard about the lawsuit from a reporter from the Hollywood Reporter who called to ask him about the allegations.

“If I received any letter from Jeff Dunham or heard from Jeff Dunham myself and they gave me some kind of reasonable explanation why I shouldn’t be selling these puppets, then maybe I would stop,” Horn said.

And maybe that’s where this ventriloquial saga ends: Horn said he’s going to struggle to afford a lawyer, so “I hope to talk to Jeff and maybe resolve it with him,” he said.

And if Eastwood gets involved, that definitely won’t make Horne’s day.