IMAGE: Whale tail on license plate
Reed Saxon  /  AP
California's personalized license plates for nature lovers shows a humpback whale tail.
updated 6/17/2008 3:11:22 PM ET 2008-06-17T19:11:22

One of California's most popular specialty license plates — depicting the tail of a Pacific humpback whale rising out of misty waters — could soon become endangered itself.

Robert Wyland, the artist who created the pale blue image and gave it to the state more than a decade ago to help it raise money for marine programs, is now demanding 20 percent of any future revenue for his art foundation.

The license plate has generated nearly $40 million for the state since its introduction in 1997. Twenty percent in royalties would amount to about $750,000 per year.

Wyland and the California Coastal Commission have been negotiating since January with little progress, and now the commission is threatening to use another artist to create a new whale tail.

But Wyland scoffs: "They're saying, 'We can get anyone to paint a Picasso.' Well, you could, but it wouldn't be a Picasso."

The 51-year-old artist and clean-water advocate is known for his life-size murals of whales. He has stamped his work on everything from $6 keychains to a hotel in Hawaii, a convention center in Long Beach and two cruises.

Handshake, but for how long?
In 1994, he and the Coastal Commission struck a handshake deal on the art for the license plate. The commission says Wyland turned over the rights with no strings attached; Wyland says he never intended for the arrangement to last forever.

For its part, the commission has reminded the artist that Wyland and his foundation have benefited from the free publicity from the plates, which also feature his signature. The plate appears on the commission's Web site and state Department of Motor Vehicles material that is mailed to millions of California drivers.

Moreover, the commission says that paying royalties to Wyland would force the shutdown of many of the programs the license plate supports.

"He just sees the money coming into the state and wants some of it," says Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission.

The whale-tail plate was created by state law and has become a hit, allowing California drivers to express their environmental leanings while stuck in traffic. "Cheers" star Ted Danson was the first person to get the plate, which he put on his electric car.

126,000 on the road
As of January, more than 126,000 California drivers had bought the plates, which cost $90 more than conventional ones and an extra $65 for renewal every year.

The money has helped pay for beach cleanup days, marine-science summer camps, beach wheelchair purchases and a variety of other marine educational programs. The commission has used the money to award grants to 330 projects around the state.

"They're giving money to everyone but us, and it's my artwork at the end of the day that supports that program," Wyland says.

Florida created a similar plate in 2003 and turns over 10 percent to Wyland. The plate generated a half-million in revenue for the state last year.

Last year, the Coastal Commission gave $25,000 to the Wyland Foundation, which says its principal aim is to "create art for and to disseminate art to public places throughout the U.S. and the world approximately every two years." And last Friday, the commission offered the foundation $100,000 a year for a decade.

But the commission and others are not optimistic about reaching a deal with a Wyland.

"I think it's better if the parties just part ways and we find a different whale tail," state Assemblyman Jared Huffman says. "I think the Coastal Commission has better things to do than to fight with a prima donna."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments