Fifty years ago, a graphic artist named Harvey Ross Ball designed a smiley face on a yellow background to raise morale at his company. It was a hit, but neither Ball nor his company sought a copyright or a trademark.
In the early 1970s, brothers Bernard and Murray Spain, owners of two Hallmark card shops in Philadelphia, came across the image in a button shop, noticed that it was incredibly popular, and simply appropriated it. They knew that Harvey Ball came up with the design in the 1960s but after adding the the slogan “Have a Happy Day” to the smile, the Brothers Spain were able to copyright the revised mark in 1971, and immediately began producing their own novelty items. By the end of the year they had sold more than 50 million buttons and countless other products, turning a profit while attempting to help return a nation’s optimism during the Vietnam War (or provide soldiers with ironic ornament for their helmets). Despite their acknowledgment of Harvey’s design, the brothers publicly took credit for icon in 1971 when they appeared on the television show “What’s My Line.”
In Europe, there is another claimant to the smiley. In 1972 French journalist Franklin Loufrani became the first person to register the mark for commercial use when he started using it to highlight the rare instances of good news in the newspaper France Soir. Subsequently, he trademarked the smile, dubbed simply “Smiley,” in over 100 countries and launched the Smiley Company by selling smiley T-shirt transfers.
That was a long time ago, but when Loufrani's company finally sought a U.S. trademark in 1997, they ran up against Walmart, who was using the symbol already. And what about Ball, the original designer? Find out all about the history of the smiley face at Smithsonian's Design Decoded blog. Link