Have you ever seen a novelty product and thought, “That’s cool. Who came up with that? How do you even know what to do if you get an idea like that?” And then, if the item is popular, a few months later you’ll see knock-offs of it everywhere and you may find yourself wondering… is that legal? Does the original designer get paid when that happens and do they have any recourse if not?
I’ve got a really cool guest post for you today but I need to introduce it first. Our guest blogger today is Caroline Nickel who was an English teacher at my high school (she has since retired). I only ever had her for one class (Journalism, in case you were curious) but I knew her well because she was close friends with my adviser, the drama teacher with whom I was extremely close. During our senior year, she told us the following story and I recently bugged her to write it down so that I could share it with all of you.
I had an idea, and then I ran with it.
My older son was headed off to college, his first real “away from home.” He had to do his share of chores in our house, but he had never done laundry and was ill-prepared to do so. My first attempt at a solution was to write on an 8”x10” piece of poster board instructions for how to do laundry successfully and avoid turning his tidy-whities into tidy-pinkies. After some thought, I realized that a piece of poster board would probably not last beyond his first week in a dorm room, so I took the plain cotton laundry bag that I had bought for him and wrote those same instructions (11 of them) in indelible ink across the bag. Those simple, basic instructions for doing laundry were essentially the words out of my mother’s mouth that I had learned as I helped her with our family laundry.
My son’s first look at the newly formatted bag was one of disdain.
“Really, Mom? You don’t expect me to take that with me, do you?”
“Yes, Son, I do, and I expect you to do your laundry accordingly.”
Off to school he went. Within a week or so, he called to report that he repeatedly came back to his dorm room, after being out, to find his dirty laundry on the floor and his laundry bag missing. He discovered that other students were borrowing it, because they, too, did not know how to do laundry.
When he told me that, the proverbial cartoon light bulb must have appeared over my head, because it dawned on me that there was a need for that kind of help in the world. And, although I never took a business or marketing course and my husband and I had never had a business of our own, I surmised that my bag was a marketable product.
Fast forward about 5 years. The son is no longer in college; we have moved across the country, and the great laundry bag idea has been on hold all that time. I suddenly felt motivated to do something with my idea, but I had no clue how to begin.
I knew I needed laundry bags and some way to get the instructions printed on the bags. I was teaching journalism at the time and was using the first laser printer in our school district. The idea of screen printing the instructions onto the bag occurred to me, and I knew that with a laser printer I could create camera-ready copy for someone to screen print onto the bags. I typed up the instructions, printed a copy, bought 5 inexpensive cotton bags, and marched to the t-shirt shop in town. They were in the business of screen printing onto t-shirts, and I hoped that they could help me. And they did just that.
They printed my instructions on my 5 prototypes; I created a little introductory letter to go along with the bags, and then I sent it to 3 different types of companies for consideration: Neiman-Marcus (a very high-end Texas department store); Lillian Vernon catalog (a moderate priced mail order catalog company) and Follett United Bookstores (suppliers to college bookstores). Lillian Vernon wrote back that they were not interested in the product. Follett United said they would consider it, but the idea was on hold for the time being.A few weeks later, I was at school teaching when the secretary In the office called to let me know that I had had a phone call from a man in Dallas and that I needed to call him back. When I did, I discovered that he was a buyer for Neiman-Marcus and that he loved the laundry bag and wanted to feature it in his upcoming Pink Sale Catalog (Neiman-Marcus’s equivalent of other department stores’ winter White Sales). I remember his words exactly, “This bag is going to make you rich.”
When the catalog came out, he called to tell me that I needed to get 500 bags to him quickly, as the orders were coming in. I had to hustle mightily to find a supplier of that many bags, and I had to pressure and plead with the t-shirt shop folks to get them printed a.s.a.p.
Within another 2 weeks, the buyer called me back to say that he needed 3000 bags, and I was in shock and a little bit of panic. Somehow, it all worked out, and the bags were a huge hit. So, take that, Lillian Vernon.
Not long after that, Follett United began to order the bags for various college bookstores, and we customized the bags by putting the school logo on the other side. Additionally, that same son who first took the bag to college, was now back at home and was feverishly working at successfully marketing the bag in a number of other stores, catalogs, magazines, etc. The profit from the bags was wonderful and was a virtual lifesaver at one point when my husband’s company downsized, and he lost his job. He then took over the sales of the bags.
In addition to the profit and the satisfaction of creating something unique and in-demand, we learned some hard lessons through the experience.
Soon after I decided that I wanted to go forward with marketing the bag, I contacted a copyright attorney to see about getting the text on the bag copyrighted and secured. Unfortunately, he was very expensive, and we had not yet reaped the benefits of our product. I discovered, however, two things: first, that the government had a form that one could use to register a written product for copyright (a do-it-yourself kit that was inexpensive). Second, I learned a little about copyright and learned that by simply putting one’s text into a concrete form, it is thereby copyrighted, and no other action has to be taken. So I was covered in that area. But was I?
No. As it happened, when the demand for more and more bags exploded, I contacted a manufacturer in New York who could produce the bags and screen print them much more quickly. So he got the bags to me, and I got them to my customers. In the meantime, he also found customers to whom he sold my “copyrighted” bags (having simply removed the copyright symbol from his version of the screen print) and he was making a handy little profit as well. It was discovered, a lawsuit followed, victory for us, but incredible disillusionment for us.
I want to jump in here and add something that Mrs. Nickel told us when I first heard this story because I thought it was really interesting. In the ensuing lawsuit, the manufacturer argued that he had the right to sell it himself as she couldn’t really copyright the laundry instructions, after all weren’t they just the same as you could find on any bottle of detergent? But as Mrs. Nickel mentioned above, her instructions were verbatim what her mother had taught her and, as such, included odd little details such as “button all buttons and zip all zippers” and advice to never use the amount the detergent company tells you to use that ultimately won the case for them and proved that her text was unique.
Also, I love that it says, “Good luck!” at the end. That’s just adorable.
I’ll let her continue.
After severing ties with that manufacturer, we found another nearby who ultimately did the same thing. The level of greed that one finds in the business world was shocking. Another lawsuit; another win, but, again, dismay at the dishonesty. The upshot of the second lawsuit was that the we were awarded, in addition to monetary gain, all of the several hundred bags that the unscrupulous fellow had made, and we were able to continue to use them for quite some time without having to find a new manufacturer or be to have them made.
We contacted several private schools in our area and sold the bags each year for several years to the schools’ parent associations. The bags became an item in their graduation packages to their seniors.
The design of the bag evolved over years: we created even larger ones; we made them out of colored nylon in addition to the cotton muslin; we added pockets for detergent and cash or school laundry credit card among other things.
Life marches on. My husband went back to work; our son left home for his own adventures, and I continued to teach. None of us really had time to keep the business going full force any longer. Additionally, we discovered that the price of having the bags manufactured was rapidly increasing, thereby making it difficult to sell the bags at a reasonable price and make a profit.
We still do sell bags to a couple of private schools each year, continuing to use up the bags from that misguided manufacturer. Every once in a while my husband (now retired) mentions trying to start it up again, but I think it has run its course. It was a great idea, my one true great idea, and children all across the country had cleaner laundry as a result.
Back in high school, after telling us this story, she gave each of the seniors in the class one of the bags to take with them to college. Mine was a green nylon one that served me well in college. It then went to college with my little brother who destroyed and/or lost it as little brothers can be counted on to do.
But while the bag was lost, the story has stayed with me all these years and I was eager to share it with you. I often see knock-offs of their bag around and it always irritates me on their behalf to see their product stolen. As I write this, you can see some of the copycat versions for sale on eBay (and one random official one).
Though the Nickel family doesn’t sell these as widely as they once did, they do have a few left so, if you want an official Nickel Productions laundry bag, you can email Caroline at cnickel43 at gmail.com and she’ll get you one. (Just tell her that Hillary sent you so she isn’t like, who are you?) Made of durable cotton muslin, 21”X32” bag with drawstring cord. $8.00 ea, plus $1.95 for shipping if you’re interested.
And now, just for fun, here’s a picture of Mrs. Nickel and I in a 1997 production of Pride and Prejudice at my high school. She was filling in for a student actor that dropped out at the last minute. She played Mrs. Lucas while I was Mrs. Bennet.
If you have any questions for Mrs. Nickel or comments on this story, go ahead and leave them below and I’ll make sure to get you an answer!