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Union76 Ball Saved After All

By now, you must have heard:  The campaign to save the original Union 76 balls is a winner.  The campaign website has the details.

But there is more work ahead, according to the site:

The 76 Balls that come off their poles are no longer being smashed or cut into pieces, but being preserved for donation to museums like the American Sign Museum, Petersen Automotive Museum, NASCAR Hall of Fame, Museum of Neon Art and perhaps even the Smithsonian! And a new type of 76 Ball, colored red rather than orange, will soon be installed at up to 100 gas stations in the west.

But there are still good reasons for signing our petition. We believe that a select few historically and architecturally significant orange 76 Balls should remain where they have always glowed and spun, like at William Pereira’s modernist 76 station in Beverly Hills, one of the spheres along Highway One in Malibu, and the station in Marysville, WA where 76 Ball designer Ray Pedersen buys his gas. Also, ConocoPhillips has declared that no private individuals will be able to get a 76 Ball, which will be a disappointment to our campaign’s supporter Michael Madsen. We respectfully ask that ConocoPhillips reconsider this policy, and present one 76 Ball to the individual who conceived, designed and hand-painted the first 76 Ball for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair: Ray Pedersen.

Selectivity, however, remains a key.  According to the WSJ [sub required], “Ms. Koga [the mover behind the site and its petition] now is worried that the campaign may have worked too well and her ball may lose its cachet. The Petersen Automotive Museum across town is also interested in getting a ball. “If every museum in L.A. gets one,” she asks, “what’s the point of getting one?”

The episode reminds me of other nearly lost, materialized IP icons:  the original Jack-in-a-Box drive-through figure [I’ll have to resort to an Internet trick here:  I declare that the Internet does not contain an image of the original Jack.], returned to life as a talking TV commercial character; San Francisco’s Doggie Diner head. 

Popular affection for these things should be a reminder that while intellectual property law pushes hard for the conceptual de-materialization of our environment, people push back.  We like our things, but we’re torn between value-from-ubiquity and value-from-scarcity.

2 thoughts on “Union76 Ball Saved After All”

  1. I like that last point. It reminds me of Tim Wu on the beauty of unauthorized YouTube clips as ads: the copyright owner can let buzz build for a while, but once the “ubiquity” has achieved its advertising function, it can aggressively send out C&D letters to take advantage of the scarcity that take-downs create.

  2. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for covering the terrific news about the 76 Balls. I’m Kim Cooper (not Koga), one of the folks behind Kim Koga’s Museum of Neon Art is among the local LA institutions in the running to receive a 76 Ball from ConocoPhillips, and we couldn’t be happier. I don’t share her concern that if multiple museums in town get balls it diminishes the value of MONA’s 76 Ball. Some people will visit MONA, others will visit the Petersen Automotive Museum, and in each case they’ll see a 76 Ball presented in a very different context as befits the particular aims of the collections. The more 76 Balls the merrier! And remember: any 76 Ball that doesn’t go to a museum collection will be destroyed, and we feel that every 76 Ball saved is a victory for great design.

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