What Were They Thinking: The Doppelgänger Edition
February 27th, 2012 by slangon

This series of posts is dedicated to examining the numerous design details from the Topps art department that leave me scratching my head. They’re the types of things that could just be one time instances that are the result of someone overlooking them, or they could have been a conscious decision on the part of Topps designers. It’s always kind of hard to tell. They always make me wish that I could sit down with someone who was involved with the creative process and ask them “What were you thinking?” In the mean time, I’ll just sit here pointing out weird little things that I notice and coming up with my own theories, or more likely just pointing them out and not coming up with any answers at all. Who knows? Maybe someone out there who is smarter and better versed in the ways of the hobby will know the answer to some of these queries. Or maybe they’ll just go down in history as some weird thing that Topps did way back when.

Today’s What Were They Thinking is a little bit of a departure. Rather than looking at specific designs from the Topps art department that I think require more explanation, I’m going to look at Topps reaction to designs from other card companies that I feel require more explanation.

It all starts in April of 2009, when Topps sued Upper Deck over certain card designs that UD was issuing or about to be issued that Topps felt mimicked some of their designs a little too closely. In the lawsuit, Topps was specifically going after some mini inserts from the 2009 Upper Deck base set that very closely resembled the 1975 Topps design. I don’t happen to own any of the mini inserts in question but thank goodness for Check Out My Cards.

Although I’m sure most folks reading this don’t need me to show you an example, but for the sake of thoroughness, here is a 1975 Topps card, for comparison.

I think you can see that there are slight differences. On the Upper Deck version, the larger chunk of color is on the bottom whereas Topps put it on the bottom. Upper Deck placed the baseball element on the left and used it for the team logo whereas Topps placed it to the right and used it to frame out the player’s position. The font that Upper Deck used for the team name at the top is clearly different from the one that Topps used. Finally, Upper Deck didn’t incorporate a facsimile autograph the way that Topps did. Even with all those differences, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Upper Deck was clearly ripping off Topps design. In Upper Deck’s defense, I do rather like the fact that they used the team colors as the border while Topps seemingly just used random color combinations.

Anyway, it seems as though Upper Deck was justifying their design choice by saying that it was actually based on the 1975 O-Pee-Chee design. In 2007, Upper Deck acquired the rights to the O-Pee-Chee name. I’m not sure is those rights actually include the rights to their past designs, especially when those designs were based on Topps and not original designs, but apparently Upper Deck was under that assumption. To someone who is surprising ignorant of copyright laws and such, that assumption seems a little disingenuous to me, but that’s neither here nor there.

Later that year, the two companies reached a settlement, that unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a lot of details about. What we do know is that part of the settlement allowed Upper Deck to sell off whatever offending cards that it produced, but after that would have to cease production, distribution and promotion of those cards.

None of that really has much to do with what has left me scratching my head, thereby inspiring me to write a What Were They Thinking post about all this though. What I find strange is the fact that it seems to me that Upper Deck, as well as some other cards companies, have been ripping off classic Topps designs for years with impunity.

Here are some examples that I’ve found based just on cards from my own personal collection that I was able to come up with off the top of my head. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples out there and I encourage anyone to chime in with other examples.

First of all, I don’t think that this was the first time that Upper Deck has been inspired by the 1975 Topps set.

Admittedly, that one is a bit of a stretch as compare to the ’09 O-Pee-Chee inserts, but I think there’s enough similarities there to at least indicate that the O-Pee-Chee incident was not an isolated one.

More damning evidence of Upper Deck’s pilfering ways can be found in their Upper Deck Vintage product, which had a 4 year run from 2001-2004. Here is a Derek Bell card from that set.

Not a bad looking card. That design looks oddly familiar, though. The colored bar at the bottom. The headshot surrounded by a black pinstripe and a white border. The solid colored circle with a small black and white action shot. Hmmm…

Like the 2009 O-Pee-Chee inserts, Upper Deck did change a few details, but in my opinion, not enough to matter. They flipped the small black and white action shot to the left and added that black bar behind the team name and position and added the Upper Deck Vintage logo. Outside of that, it looks to me like Upper Deck did 2012 Topps Heritage 11 years early.

Upper Deck’s apparent fascination with vintage Topps designs continued the following year with the 2002 edition of Upper Deck Vintage.

Once again, UD at least made a trifling attempt at disguising their plagiarism, as you can see when you compare this with the original Topps 1971 design.

As you can see, Upper Deck flipped the words down to the bottom and used a diamond shape to separate the players name from their position, but outside of that that, that Alfonzo card is pure 1971. They even went so far as to swipe the 1971 Rookie Stars design.

I’m not quite sure what they mean by “Vintage Rookies”. Maybe they were worried that if they actually used the phrase “Rookie Stars” people might notice how similar the designs are.

Upper Deck released their Vintage set for 2 more years but only the 2003 set featured more egregious “borrowing” from Topps. Here’s their version.

And here’s the inspiration.

As you can see, this time around Upper Deck didn’t even make an attempt at switching anything up. Sure, they didn’t quite get the fonts right on the player’s name and position, but I more chalk that up to lazy fontography than any attempt at making the design their own. There was one final Upper Deck Vintage set issued in 2004, but they apparently decided to lay off the Topps archives and instead focused on 1954 Red Heart Dog Food cards.

Those were some of the more blatant examples of Upper Deck borrowing from Topps design catalog that I could come up with, but they were by no means the only other card company guilty of the practice. Fleer also found inspiration in older Topps designs. Their Fleer Tradition sets looked awfully familiar at times, such as their 2000 set.

Look familiar? Let me give you a little visual aid.

They did something a little different (and in my opinion, not as nice) with the player information, but I think this is another pretty obvious rip off. Fleer kept it up the following year, this time borrowing from one of my all time favorite Topps designs.

Of course, in this case, they didn’t even come close to capturing the awesomeness of the original, but I think it’s pretty clear where they were trying to go with this one.

This final example is, like the 2001 Upper Deck Decades Dave Kingman, a bit of a stretch and probably would be thrown out in court, but I present it here as circumstantial evidence if you will. Over the next few years, Fleer kept churning out the Tradition set  but rather than mimicking older Topps designs, they took a stab at 1934 Goudey (2002), 1963 Fleer (2003) and 1990 Fleer (2004). In 2005, the design of the Fleer Tradition set could almost be considered an original design, but I personally see a lot of influence from the iconic 1952 Topps set.

I told you it was a stretch, but I think it’s close enough to be considered suspicious, especially when taken with the 2000 and 2001 designs.

As I said in the beginning, those are the examples that I could think of off the top of my head that I personally had in my collection (outside of the Johan up top, of course). So considering that other card companies had been ripping off Topps designs since at least 2000, why did it take them until 2009 to do anything about it? I guess I could overlook the Fleer Tradition examples, because why bother suing someone when they do such a bad job of ripping you off. What about the Upper Deck Vintage examples though? Especially the 2003 version where they didn’t even have the decency to make an attempt at changing the design slightly?

Was there some sort nefarious plot amongst the Topps attorneys where they knew that Upper Deck was not going to be granted an MLB license, so they waited until then to sue them, hoping to deliver some kind of knock out blow to their biggest competition? I can’t think of any other reason to start going after them for something that they’ve been doing for years, can you?

2 Responses to “What Were They Thinking: The Doppelgänger Edition”

  1. I never figured out why the “O-Pee-Chee” inserts were such a big deal when no one at Topps seemed to really care at all about Upper Deck Vintage.

    I don’t have a legal background, but I think the case should have been tossed out because Topps didn’t seem to care about protecting its old designs from 2001-2003.

  2. I think that 2001 Fleer Tradition set looks even closer to the two Topps Big sets from 1988 and 1989 which are (obviously) inspired by their own 1956 design.

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