July 16 2014
Apparently Times Square isn’t safe anymore. Once it was littered with drug dealing and prostitution, today the scourge is Elmo and Hello Kitty. Yes, you read that correctly, city officials are worried—very worried -- about unscrupulous hucksters dressed as cartoon characters. But Mickey and Spiderman aren’t stealing or assaulting anyone, they are just trying to make a buck and the city of New York wants in on the action by requiring licenses.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, there are enterprising folks who have been dressing up in full cartoon and superhero regalia and offering tourists to take pictures for a fee, of course. There have been some complaints from tourists that the sales pitches get aggressive, and of course, several representatives from companies that own the rights to the original images of these cartoon characters have weighed in on the matter. "It is a little distressing," said Dave Marchi, senior director of brand management and marketing at Sanrio, the company that owns Hello Kitty, a popular character in Times Square. "It's very frustrating to us that there are people who are masquerading in costume that could be misinterpreted as Hello Kitty."
In a predictable move, some politicians have decided to help “solve” an otherwise minor tourist problem by requiring licenses and fees for these cartoon creatures. The move is billed as a matter of public safety, even if it is likely that the politicians are also not unaware of how desirable licensing would be to the established corporations who don’t welcome freelance competition from street entrepreneurs. From the Journal:
A bill drafted by City Councilman Andy King would introduce a licensing system to regulate the work of the Times Square characters and call for background checks on the people in costume…. “I am particularly concerned adults are dressing up in kids character costumes and pretty much harassing or even begging for money to take a picture,” he said.
Panhandling is legal in New York City, by the way. Admittedly, as King noted, there have been some problems:
In April 2013, a man dressed as Cookie Monster was charged after allegedly shoving a young child. The year before, a man dressed as Elmo was arrested in connection with an alleged anti-Semitic tirade. ….. [another] man portraying Spider-Man was convicted of harassing a tourist, and another character was arrested for groping.
In every one of these cases, however, the police did their job. Those suspected of a crime were arrested and charged, with one leading to a conviction. The system of “checks and balances,” in Mr. King’s parlance, is working. The public complained to the police and the police investigated the issue. When it was warranted, the person suspected of wrongdoing was arrested and charged and even convicted of having broken the law.
What the licensing scheme would result in is more money flowing into the coffers of the city of New York, and that makes the politicians happy.
Some of the folks charged with keeping Times Square open for business, namely making it a nice place for hundreds of thousands of tourists seem to have a better understanding of the issues. The Times Square Alliance’s director Tim Tompkins says that “the problem is not with the folks that are out there making kids happy in an appropriate way, the problem is the folks that are both subtly and not so subtly intimidating and harassing people,” Mr. Tompkins said.
The solution to that issue is to continue to work with police to ensure that Hello Kitty doesn’t get too frisky, not to put her out of business. If there is copyright infringement and the owners of Elmo and Spidey want to sue for damages from these small-time, hard-working folks, let them go ahead. But office holders shouldn’t get involved in stifling a perfectly legal business – even if it is a tourist trap.