A US cartoonist has accused a Hong Kong education publisher of “stealing” his work after a drawing depicting a “cultural invasion” by American multinational brands appeared in a sample textbook for the revamped liberal studies subject.

Artist Andy Singer told HKFP on Friday that the political illustration – which appeared in a draft textbook printed by Marshall Cavendish Education for secondary school teachers – was “copied” from his work Invading new markets first published in 1998.

Andy Singer’s “Invading new markets” first published in 1998. Provided by Andy Singer.

Singer’s drawing featured what appeared to be Walt Disney characters – including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy – dressed as soldiers with guns in their hands colonising an island. The picture shows tankers with logos of US multinational brands such as McDonald’s and Nike, shooting cans of Coca-Cola onto the island. The army also appeared to be “claiming the territory” with a Microsoft Windows flag, while fighter jets dropped televisions on the island.

A political cartoon on cultural globalisation that appears in a sample textbook by Marshall Cavendish Education. Photo: Apple Daily.

The cartoon printed by the Hong Kong publisher, on the other hand, depicts a similar scene of Disney characters undertaking an imperialist takeover of an island. Titled “a cartoon depicting cultural globalisation,” the picture portrays Snow White, Mickey Mouse and Goofy holding guns, while McDonald’s characters run with a flag of the fast food company and fighter planes drop fries and burgers on the island.

A ‘direct steal’

Some users on Twitter on Thursday alleged that the textbook illustration was a “direct steal” from Singer. In response to HKFP’s enquiries, Singer agreed and said there may be a copyright infringement.

“Yes, the cartoon seems like a direct steal. My cartoons appear in a Chinese news magazine called Neweekly, so someone either saw the image there (and copied it) or the found it on the internet,” Singer wrote in an email.

The Minnesota-based cartoonist said his work was registered with the US Copyright Office in 1998, among other cartoons he produced that year. According to office’s public catalogue, Invading new markets was published in the August 1998 issue of Z Magazine and that Singer was the copyright claimant.

He said he was uncertain about how US and European Union copyrights are treated in Hong Kong: “I’m not sure I can do anything about it, other than send them a ‘cease and desist’ e-mail, but I’m glad to know about it,” he said.

“I’m angry about what the Chinese government is doing to democracy in Hong Kong (and elsewhere). It’s depressing,” he added.

According to the Hong Kong government’s Intellectual Property Department, the Copyright Ordinance came into force in June 1997 and offers a “comprehensive protection” to various categories of literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works.

The department said no formalities were required for obtaining copyright protection in Hong Kong, which means the works first published outside of the city are also protected by the local legislation.

A sample textbook for the Citizenship and Social Development subject printed by Marshall Cavendish Education. Photo: Apple Daily.

“Works of authors from any place in the world, or works first published anywhere in the world, also qualify for copyright protection in the Hong Kong SAR,” the department wrote on its website.

Some critics said the textbook illustration and some content in the sample textbook were “leading,” after the draft version mentioned some traditional Chinese festivals were “less valued” than the Western one, according to Apple Daily.

A spokesperson for Marshall Cavendish Education told HKFP their legal department would look into the matter.

‘Not yet reviewed’

Local media reported on Wednesday that copies of the sample textbook were distributed to secondary school teachers for the overhauled liberal studies subject, which will be renamed to Citizenship and Social Development in the upcoming academic year.

Hong Kong’s education minister Kevin Yeung attends a briefing on the electoral overhaul on April 7, 2021. Photo: GovHK.

The textbook – which is not publicly available – also claimed that some customs were “diminishing [in] influence” under the impact of Western cultures, a photo from Apple Daily showed. Other local media reported that civil disobedience was mentioned, but that the textbook did not update its information on the restructured electoral system.

The Education Bureau told local media that the sample textbook had not yet been reviewed by the authorities, adding it was not on its recommended textbook list.

Launched in 2009, liberal studies is one of the four core subjects in the senior secondary curriculum. The Education Bureau announced last November that it was revamping the topic by adding more content about China and reducing the focus on current affairs.

The changes came after pro-Beijing figures claimed the subject had encouraged students to join the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests, which often descended into violent clashes between police and protesters.

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.