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Fantasy meets reality in court of law

A magistrate yesterday came face to face with his Playmobil counterpart after a woman, defending herself from allegations of copyright breach, presented a model of his court room as evidence.

The model, which included details such as the blond deputy registrar, police, prosecution, defence counsel and even Justitia, the goddess of justice holding weighing scales, was placed on the Bench right next to Magistrate Antonio Micallef Trigona, much to his amusement and of those attending the sitting.

Vicky Vassallo, the 37-year-old creator of the scene, took the witness stand yesterday in the case where she stands charged with copyright breach and commercial fraud.

She was charged two-and-a-half years ago following a complaint by the Brandstätter Group, the company that owns Playmobil.

The company drew attention to the fact that the woman’s scenes were being sold on eBay and from a shop in Buġibba.

The figures to which the company took offence were macabre-looking knights, holding bloody decapitated plastic heads produced by someone else.

Ms Vassallo said she had been a collector of Playmobil for 30 years and was obsessed with the toys. She would travel to different Playmobil fairs across Europe and meet collectors like herself who would create their own scenes.She did not in any way alter the figurines or their accessories but use parts from different sets to create different scenes.

At this point she presented the model of the court room explaining that the white columns came from a Roman arena set and the chairs from a Victorian dolls house, all produced by Playmobil.

She sold her scenes online from the auction website eBay as did other collectors from around the world. She owned these figurines and sold them as second-hand items and in the description of the items on the website this was clearly indicated.Customising, as it was called, was something collectors did when taking part in fairs abroad organised by Playmobil, during which prizes were given out for the best scenes.

At these fairs, collectors bought, sold and exchanged figurines, she said. Moreover, the company even sold mix-and-match sets.

As Ms Vassallo explained how the figurines were used, she demonstrated what is known as the Hans Beck method – Hans Beck being the creator of Playmobil – for collapsing a figurine into little parts to be able to re-assemble and re-configure it.

When Magistrate Micallef Trigona asked if this was what the whole court case was about, defence lawyer Joseph Giglio quipped, “Yes, your honour, fantasy is a crime too, now”.

Ms Vassallo then presented as evidence books on customising published by Playmobil, as well as a packet of the mix-and-match parts. She also presented a press release by the same company, which was released one week after she was held by the police, which provided guidelines about customising the toys. The guidelines advised not to include violent scenes, the witness said. During cross examination, Police Superintendent Carmelo Magri asked if she had permission from the company to package the toys and sell them.

She said she did not but insisted she did not need any permission because they were second-hand items and not packaged in Playmobil boxes.

The officer also asked if she had carried out the necessary safety checks with the company to make sure the products were safe for children, to which Dr Giglio remarked that the production of Playmobil was sometimes subcontracted to prisoners. “What do you mean safe,” he asked.

Supt. Magri said that he appreciated Ms Vassallo’s creative work and liked it but he had to do his job as a police officer and uphold the law.

The officer then asked her about her profits from the venture. Ms Vassallo replied that could not give a definitive answer because she spent a lot of money on the toys, pointing out that she once spent €100 on a single figure.

At this point Dr Giglio asked the officer what car he drove. A Peugeot, came the reply. What car did he own previously? A Skoda. Had the inspector asked permission from Skoda to sell the car and had he asked permission to change its tyres?

The officer replied that no one had filed an official complaint against him.

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