Italian court affirms merits of plagiarism suit filed by creator of Western Kentucky's Big Red

A 15-year-long court case was given new life on Wednesday when the highest court in Italy published its decision affirming the merits of a plagiarism suit brought by the inventor of Western Kentucky's mascot against a large Italian media company.

Western Kentucky and companies that had bought the school's international merchandise licenses originally sued Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset and Antonio Ricci, the creator of a similar-looking character named Gabibbo, for $250 million in 2003. When the school didn't prevail, the case was refiled by the parties with Ralph Carey, who created Western Kentucky's Big Red character in 1979.

In the suit that matched the school's complaint, Carey contended that not only did Gabibbo look like a copy of Big Red, but an incriminating newspaper article pointed to the fact that Ricci, a well-known Italian public figure, admitted to taking the idea from the university in a newspaper article.

In a 1991 interview in an Italian newspaper, Ricci said that Gabibbo -- referred to by some as the "Barney of Italy" -- was previously "a mascot for a basketball team in Kentucky."

"It has been a long journey from a scribble in a spiral notebook," Carey said, laughing.

"We couldn't be more happy with the ruling that came down today," said Steven Crossland, who was charged with managing Western Kentucky's international licensees. "It has been obvious from inception that Gabibbo is a copy of Big Red and it's appropriate that the Italian courts acknowledged Antonio Ricci's article admitting that 'he rescued Gabibbo from Kentucky.' We look forward to resolving this case that has dragged on for 15-plus years. Facts are facts and the other side can't hide from them."

Western Kentucky officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Western Kentucky prevailed in the lower courts, but the Italian side won in the court of appeals in Milan, effectively making the case that the two characters weren't exactly alike. On Wednesday, the highest court in Italy ruled in favor of Carey, saying that it didn't matter if they weren't exactly alike.

"The Court of Cassation affirmed that plagiarism can also be evolutionary," lawyer for the plaintiffs Alberto Gambino, a professor of private law at the European University of Rome, told ESPN.

The case will now be refiled and will head back to the Milan Court of Appeals. The family of Berlusconi, who was the country's prime minister from 2001 through 2011, still has controlling stake in Mediaset.