Squashing Flat Stanley: A Grassroots Online Community Is Threatened by Trademark Issues

Legal challenges may shutter a popular literacy-project Web site.

Legal challenges may shutter a popular literacy-project Web site.
Squashing Flat Stanley: A Grassroots Online Community Is Threatened by Trademark Issues

Skinny Dipping:

Dale Hubert, creator of the Flat Stanley Project, and Flat Stanley wade in the Arctic Ocean.

Credit: Courtesy of Dale Hubert

In 1995, third-grade teacher Dale Hubert, from London, Ontario, was searching for a way to inject a bit of pizzazz into his literary-arts curriculum. Hubert -- who has been teaching since 1979 -- found immediate inspiration in Stanley Lambchop, a lovable character from Flat Stanley, a book about a boy who gets squashed by a bulletin board and then happily discovers that he's slim enough to travel in an envelope.

Thinking about the ways that life can imitate art, Hubert launched what he called the Flat Stanley Project. He asked his students to create their own "flat people" out of paper and to write stories about their adventures in a journal. Then, they sent the flat people and the journals out to classrooms throughout North America that Hubert had contacted using what was, at the time, a new technology: the Internet.

Today, the project has become a veritable global phenomenon, and because of it, thousands of children from more than forty countries have exchanged pictures, stories, and goodwill, turning a half-inch-thin storybook character into a cultural icon. Flat Stanley look-alikes have even been photographed with Clint Eastwood on Oscar night, soared aboard a space shuttle, and visited heads of state around the globe. But now, as the project enters its thirteenth year, Hubert might be forced to pull the plug on the popular project.

Citing legal challenges from the estate of Jeff Brown, the late author of the original Flat Stanley book, Hubert posted a message on the project home page that reads, "Sadly, the Flat Stanley Project may be forced to end." Letters of support illustrating the project's -- and the character's -- far reach have since poured in.

Tracie Bryson, a teacher from Birmingham, Alabama, is one fan who wrote in to protest the legal developments: "I used Flat Stanley as a part of my national-board-certification process. This project is an innovative and fun way to teach social studies along with reading. My students begged me to read the other Flat Stanley books to them. It is rare that you have kids wanting to listen to or read a story rather than go to PE or even lunch."

Kristof De Waegemaeker, a teacher from Belgium, said, "This project gave the students the opportunity to actively learn about different cultures and countries. Therefore, it would be a terrible loss for our school and students if the Flat Stanley Project were to be terminated. I sincerely hope that a solution can be found and that the project can go on for many years to come."

Squashing Flat Stanley: A Grassroots Online Community Is Threatened by Trademark Issues

Self-Image:

Students use digital photos of themselves to make their own versions of Flat Stanley.

Credit: Courtesy of Brenda Lyles

Trouble in the "Flatlands"

Hubert runs the Flat Stanley Project almost single-handedly through a charitable foundation called the Literacy Community, and he says he has never earned a penny for his efforts in building what he calls the "flatlands." But he recognizes the compelling commercial power of Flat Stanley. For instance, there's now a musical about the charming character, an expanded line of Flat Stanley books, and even talk of a film deal. "We've certainly helped grow the brand," opines Hubert, who says he had to special order the nearly out-of-print book back when he began the project.

And this is where things get tricky, legally speaking. Where does Flat Stanley the book end and Flat Stanley the nonprofit project begin? Since Brown's death in 2003, Hubert and Brown's estate have been in protracted negotiations in an attempt to come to terms over trademark issues and ownership of the URL flatstanley.com. But now the situation has become more urgent. Hubert says, "The estate recently told me that it would take flatstanley.com from me -- by legal means if necessary -- and then 'allow' me to continue my project." That may hint at a court fight Hubert says he can't afford. And without an official agreement, Hubert says he is unable to pursue sponsorship for his nonprofit project.

"It would be nice to come to an agreement so that these two properties could coexist to the mutual benefit of each," says Hubert. "As a third-grade teacher, I don't have the resources for a legal battle. Maybe there are better ways to use my time." (Marc Ginsberg, spokesperson for the trust that owns the rights to the Flat Stanley character, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Flat Family to the Rescue

Hubert says he has a new idea that would enable teachers to continue their global collaborations if these legal issues cannot be resolved quickly. He calls it the Flat Family Project and envisions children exchanging paper versions of their own family members. "As many advantages as Flat Stanley provides, he happens to be a little, white, male character," notes Hubert. "With the Flat Family, we could have people of color, females, extended family, grandparents -- even pets!"

Hubert says the two qualities that have made the Flat Stanley Project a success -- its flexibility and its simplicity -- are the same ones that would make it easy to redirect the focus of the project onto families.

Here's how the Flat Stanley Project typically works: Students make and personalize their own flat people and start a journal that describes their characters' likes and dislikes, or their local community. The students then place the flat people and the journal in an envelope (or scan and attach them to an email), and off they go to either a predesignated classroom or a destination the students or teachers have chosen. (Students from Dallas, for example, recently sent their flat people to soldiers in Iraq.)

On the other end, the recipients treat their flat visitors like special guests. The hosts take them sightseeing, adding daily journal updates that chronicle the adventures their flat guests experience in this new community. At the visit's end, the flat people and the journals return home, sometimes accompanied by a collection of souvenirs.

Squashing Flat Stanley: A Grassroots Online Community Is Threatened by Trademark Issues

Reaching Out Across Borders:

Flat Stanley meets Mayan women in Mexico.

Credit: Courtesy of Dale Hubert

Because of its open-ended design, there are already myriad variations on the project. "I've seen thousands of teachers take the idea and run with it," Hubert says. "They're inspired by the concept, and then they individualize it for their own students' needs." Hubert shares innovative ideas on the project Web site along with a multimedia gallery of examples.

The wide range of songs, videos, and photos featuring Flat Stanley illustrates the many ways teachers can customize the project. When one classroom's flat people traveled to a research station in Antarctica, it set the stage for science-related activities back at school. In addition, students can meet geography-curriculum standards when they track their flat people's travels on a paper map or by using Google Earth.

In the beginning, teachers did the project primarily with elementary school students. But teachers have found that the project can work with older students, too. In Indonesia, for example, high school students use the project to practice their English. "These girls are writing about Flat Stanley getting involved in romances and having his heart broken," Hubert says. "It's an outlet for talking about their emotions and the feelings that come with growing up."

Despite the numerous offshoots, Hubert says there's a common thread running through all of these activities -- the use of meaningful communication activities to develop literacy and language skills. "With a traditional pen pal project, it can be hard for some students to know what to say," Hubert notes. "But when you've got Flat Stanley, it's as if you have a mutual friend. You have this third person that both parties can relate to, and suddenly, it opens the door to imagination and communication."

Playground Diplomacy

Over the years, Hubert has dreamed up creative and meaningful variations for the project himself. For example, Hubert would like to reach out to kids in children's hospitals. "Imagine some very sick kids sending out a flat person," he says, "and traveling to places they may never be able to get to in real life."

He's even entertained the idea of orchestrating an exchange between schools in Israel and Palestine. "Flat Stanley for world peace -- it's not too far off," he says. "He's quite a goodwill ambassador." Indeed, the U.S. Department of State encourages participation in the Flat Stanley Project to celebrate International Education Week 2008.

With all these high-minded visions for Flat Stanley, Hubert says, he's still hopeful that the legal issues with the estate can be resolved and that the project will remain alive and well. He's optimistic, because after nearly thirty years of teaching, he's learned a thing or two about diplomacy: "When kids are fighting, we elementary teachers always try to find a win-win situation," Hubert observes. "I'm still hoping to find a way that allows everybody to get along."

Suzie Boss, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, is coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She also blogs for Edutopia.org.

This article originally published on 7/9/2008

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Comments (10)

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Journalist and PBL advocate

Flat Stanley App

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I'm happy to share this follow-up: A Flat Stanley App has just been released for the iPhone, with Dale Hubert's participation. Find out more on the official Flat Stanley Project blog: http://www.flatstanley.com/blog.php?nav=blog

Denise V. Campbell (not verified)

Flat Stanley

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My daughter and I read constantly when she was growing up--she is now 24 and in law school. Somehow, we never ever knew about the Flat Stanley books.

My husband's grandaughter, Lauren, sent us "Flat" last week and we had so very much fun showing him around our town. We sent our adventures with Flat back to Lauren this week to be shared with her classmates in Nebraska.

We will now order the books; had it not been for this wonderful educational program, we would not have ever known about our friend Flat.

I really hope this problem between the author's family and Mr. Hubert will be resolved soon. The way I see it is that the author's family will just benefit much, much more by having Mr. Hubert spreading this wonderful story. Otherwise, many many people like us would never have known about, and ordered, and read the books!

Leigh Ann (not verified)

Flat Stanley

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I'm not a teacher, but I used to be an education reporter. Before Flat Stanley resurfaced and the Flat Stanley project was created, kids sent out geo-bears. Same concept, but you took a stuffed teddy bear equipped with a backpack with a notebook and pen and the information on the project and where to send postcards, souvenirs, etc, and what date he needed to be home by. They weren't always mailed, they were often handed off from one person to another. Flat Stanley may have to end (although I don't see how it'd be possible), but the concept will live on. My family hosted a family of flat dogs once. And we've done several Flat Stanleys and a geo-bear.

parent and educator (not verified)

The obvious solution to the Flat Stanley dilemma

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So long as kids are making their own flats rather than copying out of books, there is no infringement. The project doesn't need the endorsement of the author's estate, it just needs a new name.

Frankly, the books are so badly outdated in terms of societal norms and expectations, the only reason they are still in print is because of this project.

Go ahead, kill the golden goose. They are just going to make themselves look ridiculous and petty.

Lucille T. Chagnon (not verified)

Flat Stanley Legal Issues

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There must be a way that the Flat Stanley legal issues can be resolved simply by looking at how the estate of Jeff Brown is already benefiting enormously with 1) greatly increased book sales 2) generated through free advertising 3) not only in the US but also around the globe 4) via the Flat Stanley school-based projects.
I am a published author of three books on literacy, a lifelong classroom teacher (3rd grade through university) and trainer of hundreds of literacy tutors. Lucille T. Chagnon, Chincoteague Island, VA http://teachtwo.net/

Fair Use Protects Flat Stanley

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Educators should not be chilled in their use of Flat Stanley as a means to teach literacy and technology skills, since they have the right to make "fair use" of intellectual property.

Fair use is the part of copyright law that balances the rights of users with the rights of owners. After all, copyright law is designed to reward and foster the creation of culture and the spread of knowledge.

Owners have been trying to expand their rights for many years-- but users' rights are equally important.
since copying, quoting and generally re-using existing cultural material is also a critically important part of generating new culture.

A threatening letter is not the same as a lawsuit. Copyright owners are taking advantage of educators' ignorance about their rights under the law. Educators must make use of their fair use rights or they will lose them!

Learn more about fair use:
http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/resources/fair_use/

Cari (not verified)

Flat Stanley

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Long live Flat Stanley!

My daughter's first grade class made Flat Stanleys and sent them to three different places in the United States as part of a geography project. The Flat Stanleys were returned with postcards, info, and other souvenirs and the locations were tracked on a wall map. It was very low tech and simple, and my daughter and her classmates loved it! It also strengthened my daughter's relationships with the family members and friends who "hosted" Flat Stanley on his adventures. It was a wonderful project.

I hope the legal issues can be resolved fairly. The people in Brown's estate sound greedy and opportunistic to me. Everything gets monetized eventually, I guess. It's enough to make one cynical!

David E. Walker, Ed.D. (not verified)

Undergraduate Adventures with Flat Stanley

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I teach Early Childhood and Elementary Education courses at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. Many of my classes in literacy and in fine arts have experienced the thrill of networking with elementary school students in Eustis, Florida and in Mechanic Falls, Maine through Flat Stanley. Numerous university students have enjoyed making outfits to cloth Flat Stanley in our school colors, one group even made him a girl friend - Flat Sally, and several students took him on trips and photographed him with backdrops as varied as Times Square, with a live deer, and in a coal mine. I hope the tradition of using the character of Flat Stanley to inspire students of all ages will continue to prosper. What a fitting way to commemorate the author's life and his writing.

Fiona Fraser (not verified)

Flat Stanley: Grassroots Online Community Is Threatened

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As part of our Cruising the Continents investigations this past term at school, my class of 5 year olds read the story about Flat Stanley and then each child sent a Flat Stanley and some information about themselves to a child or a class to about 18 different places all over the world - from Poland to Israel, from Greece to the United States. We even sent Stanley on an adventure through cyber-space to the Mawson Research Centre in Antarctica. Living in Perth, Western Australia, one of the world's most geographically isolated captial cities, the children were thrilled each time a large envelope was delivered to school containing their Stanley with a little book recording his adventures. We traced his adventures on a large world map and used his travels as a springboard for learning about the life and culture of children in other countries - the games they play, the food they eat, their school life etc. Some children have continued their new friendships through email. I became a member of the Flat Stanley Project to find my initial contacts. It was an invaluable source of inspiration and information. What a shame it would be to see that resource no longer available.
Fiona

Cindy Zamora (not verified)

Flat Stanley

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I am not sure that this is what Mr. Brown would have liked at all. The year before his death, my students sent a flat stanley to Mr. Brown who sent back a nice handwritten note about their walk in Central Park. It is a shame that it has come to this...by the way, the same year my students got a great letter from George Lucas and how he had entertained Stanley.

In my classes the students pick a theme. One year we send Stanley to musicians, another actors, another politicians. They have always been pleased with the result.

Cindy

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