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In search of ‘happy little trees’

bob-ross-2Remember Bob Ross?

Not the VMI quarterback from Richmond who became an NFL coach and took the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl after the 1994 season. That’s Bobby Ross.

Bob Ross was a public television sensation for more than a decade as the host of “The Joy of Painting.”

With his trademark Afro and a gentle, upbeat and encouraging manner, Ross invited anyone to paint. And he shared his considerable skill with the affirmation that you too could do it.

Wielding a large paint brush and a well-worn palette, with a few strokes Ross showed us how to create “happy little trees” or “happy little clouds.”

Imagine another upbeat television personality — Julia Child and the joie de vivre she brought to cooking – and you get the idea about how popular these people were and why.

Ross passed away in 1995, but he has lived on. There is a “Joy of Painting” YouTube channel with all the show’s episodes (more than 400) from 1983 to 1994 available for viewing.  And his sincere and earnest demeanor has made him a hero to ironic hipsters, giving the man with the ’fro a new legion of fans.

There is a legal angle underlying all the info on Ross.

Ross was in federal court in Alexandria this spring, even though he died 24 years ago. Well, the company he, his wife and two friends started in the early 1990s – Bob Ross Inc., known as BRI – was in federal court.

BRI was defending a lawsuit brought by a company started by Ross’ son, Robert Stephen Ross called RSR Art LLC. Ross the son claimed that he owned the Bob Ross intellectual property and right to publicity.

U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady had little patience for the son’s claims, noting in RSR Art LLC v. Bob Ross Inc. (VLW 019-3-172) that Ross himself once wrote a memo that said “the greatest asset we [BRI] own is the Bob Ross name and image.”

Ross the son based his claims on a trust formed shortly before Ross the father died, arguing that he had transferred the IP rights to it.

But O’Grady called him out: The son apparently ignored a global agreement in 1997, of which the trust was a party, reaffirming BRI as owner of the IP and publicity rights.

RSR Art couldn’t bring the suit, O’Grady reasoned, because it never owned the property at issue.

And what’s more, the judge wrote, even if the son owned some of the rights, any claims are long barred by the statute of limitations. Summary judgment for BRI granted.

Not a happy little ending for Ross the son, to say the least. And a little bit of a downer considering what an upper Ross the father had been.

Maybe it’s time for a dose of the calm joy that permeated “The Joy of Painting.”  So dial up YouTube, take palette and brush in hand, focus on that reassuring voice and start work on “a fantastic little painting.”

– Paul Fletcher

Note: Photo of Bob Ross at work (above) courtesy of Bob Ross Inc.