A smiley, or happy face, is a stylized representation of a smiling human face. It is commonly represented as a yellow circle with two black dots representing eyes and a black arc representing the mouth. ‘Smiley’ is also sometimes used as a generic term for any emoticon (a facial expression pictorially represented by punctuation and letters, usually to express a writer’s mood).

The first unhappy face recorded on film can be seen in Ingmar Bergman’s 1948 film ‘Hamnstad.’ Later on, in 1953 and 1958, the happy face was used in promotional campaigns for motion pictures ‘Lili’ and ‘Gigi’, respectively.

The happy face was first introduced to popular culture in 1958 when the WMCA radio station in New York ran a competition for the most popular radio show at the time, ‘Cousin Brucie.’ Listeners who answered their phone ‘WMCA Good Guys!’ were rewarded with a ‘Good Guys!’ sweatshirt that incorporated a happy face into its design. Thousands of these sweatshirts were given away during the late 1950s.

In 1963 Harvey Ball, an American commercial artist, was employed by an advertising company to create a happy face to be used on buttons. His rendition, with bright yellow background, dark oval eyes, and creases at the sides of the mouth, was to become the most iconic version.

The graphic was popularized again in the early 1970s by Philadelphia brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, who used it in a campaign to sell novelty items. The two produced buttons as well as coffee mugs, t-shirts, bumper stickers and many other items emblazoned with the symbol and the phrase ‘Have a happy day’ which mutated into ‘have a nice day.’ Working with New York button manufacturer NG Slater, some 50 million happy face badges were produced by 1972.

In the 1970s, the happy face (and the accompanying ‘have a nice day’ mantra) is also said to have become a zombifying hollow sentiment, emblematic of Nixon-era America and the passing from the optimism of the Summer of Love into the more cynical decade that followed. This motif is evidenced in the era of ‘paranoid soul’ such as ‘Smiling Faces Sometimes’ (released by The Temptations in April 1971), ‘I’ll Take You There’ (The Staples Singers, 1972), ‘Don’t Call Me Brother’ (The O’Jays, 1973), and ‘You Caught Me Smilin” (Sly and the Family Stone, 1971).

In the UK, the happy face has been associated with psychedelic culture since anarchist activist Ubi Dwyer and the Windsor Free Festival in the 1970s and the dance music culture that emerged during the second summer of love in the late 1980s. The association was cemented when the band Bomb The Bass used an extracted smiley from the graphic novel ‘Watchmen’ on the center of its ‘Beat Dis’ hit single.

The smiley was included in the character set of the first IBM PC in 1981 and all subsequent PC compatible computers.

French journalist Franklin Loufrani registered the iconic smiley face image as a trademark in France in 1971 , and he created The Smiley Licensing Corporation, Ltd. to sell, license, and advertise the smiley face image in the United Kingdom and Europe. In 2001 the name of Loufrani’s company was changed to SmileyWorld, which has managed to register the symbol in over 100 countries (not including the USA) for 25 classes of goods and services.

In 1999, Harvey Ball belatedly formed his own World Smile Corporation and began licensing his particular rendering of the happy face to fund charitable causes. Profits are distributed to charities through the Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation, which also sponsors the annual World Smile Day Ball started in 1999 to encourage ‘acts of kindness.’

In 1997, Franklin Loufrani and Smiley World attempted to acquire trademark rights to the symbol (and even to the word ‘smiley’ itself) in the United States. This brought Loufrani into conflict with Wal-Mart, which had begun prominently featuring a happy face in its ‘Rolling Back Prices’ campaign over a year earlier. Wal-Mart responded first by trying to block Loufrani’s application, then later by trying to register the smiley face themselves; Loufrani in turn sued to stop Wal-Mart’s application, and in 2002 the issue went to court, where it would languish for seven years before a decision.

In any case, Wal-mart began phasing out the smiley face on its vests and its website in 2006. But they sued an online parodist for alleged ‘trademark infringement’ after he used the symbol. They lost that case in 2008, when the judge declared that the smiley face is not a ‘distinctive’ mark, and therefore cannot be trademarked by anyone—and thus, Wal-Mart has no claim to it. The Loufrani vs. Wal-Mart case was finally closed in 2009, when the judge dismissed Loufrani’s claims to any rights on either the generic smiley face symbol or the word ‘smiley,’ noting that both had become ‘ubiquitous’ in American culture long before Loufrani’s initial trademark application.

These two court decisions effectively ruled the smiley face (as well as the words ‘smiley face’) to be in the public domain, at least within the jurisdiction of the United States. U.S. court decisions have no effect in other countries though, and Loufrani’s SmileyWorld continues to claim (and enforce) trademark rights in much of the rest of the world.


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