Ninja Justice: From plush toys to video games, Shawn Smith finds success with some help from the Institute for Justice’s nonprofit legal clinic

“Shawnimals, as a land,” creator Shawn Smith explains, “is made up of eighteen different countries, and Ninjatown is one of them.” In this land of Ninja, characters like the Wee Ninja roam. The Wee Ninja, as its name suggests, is no ordinary ninja–he is, as Smith puts it, “less about assassination and more about hugging.” Welcome to the world of Shawnimals: an ever-expanding universe of cute plush toys, comics, buttons, T-shirts and now, a video game coming to an electronics store near you.

Ninjatown, as a video game, was released on October 28 for the Nintendo DS. The game uses a traditional Tower Defense style of strategy gameplay (think Rampart, or PlayStation 3’s PixelJunk Monsters) and features Smith’s cuddly creations. It’s a logical extension of his work; a reviewer for popular gaming magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly from 1996 to 2000, Smith has always held a keen interest in the video game industry, and maintains close ties with many who operate within it. As an artist and a fledgling entrepreneur anxious to expand his line of toys to new horizons, the video game world would prove a perfect fit.

Smith has taken his creations a long way since his days of doodling. He left his position at EGM in 2000 to pursue a degree in painting at Illinois State University, and “it was at that time I started making these weird stuffed animal things called Shawnimals,” he recalls. Inspiration for them came “from pretty much anything–an object, a thing… an animal from this world, or a food,” but all were influenced by Smith’s appreciation of Japanese pop culture–“stuff,” as he describes it, “that’s more a combination of weird and cute.”

As time progressed, he amassed a wide collection of characters. “I think [for] any artist, especially ones that like to do lots of character drawings and sketches, at some point you’re looking back and archiving them and thinking of what you’re going to do with them,” he reasons. For Smith, the decision arose from looking at some “import toys based on completely imagined characters”; at that point, he recalls, “it just clicked.”

As an artist, Smith’s creations came naturally. As a fledgling entrepreneur looking to turn his hobby into a financially-solvent business, however, Smith faced a bit more trouble. “[My girlfriend and I] started off selling [these hand-made plush toys] to friends and friends of friends, and word spread from there,” Smith recounts. “The advantage I had was, having worked in the game industry, [friends in the business] were moving to San Francisco and New York and I was able to get word out to them.” Then, in late 2002 and early 2003, he received his first real press when the newsletter DailyCandy (which touts itself as “a free daily e-mail from the front lines of fashion, food, and fun”) promoted the Shawnimals in both its New York and Los Angeles editions. “I got a lot of feedback from people–four hundred emails in a day,” Smith estimates, “and I’m still running the website off my student webspace.”

At that point, Smith and his girlfriend (and later, wife) began contemplating their next step. “As time went on we started working more and more [on the Shawnimals],” he explains. “At that point, we took custom orders, and we’d make our own creations–make them, put ‘em online, first come-first serve…and that was how we sold them.” But with the increased attention and increasing demand, Smith realized they were at a turning point. “From there we took a step back and were like, ‘Is this something we really want to focus on the best we can, given that we’re still finishing our degrees?’” he recounts. “And we decided to.”

Cue the entrance of the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship. Operating out of the University of Chicago Law School, the IJ Clinic (as it’s commonly referred to) serves, in the words of Director Beth Milnikel, “to help inner-city entrepreneurs start their businesses.” Run by Law School students under the supervision of two attorneys (one of whom is Milnikel herself), the Clinic offers free help to small businesses who otherwise couldn’t afford to hire an attorney to get the help they need to get their operations off the ground.

“We found out about [the Clinic] through a friend who was also working with [them]…we were in a real, like any small business, a transitional period…and we were coming up on another milestone–are we going to have stuff manufactured? Are we really going to get intellectual property protection? Are we going to make this into a full-time business?” Smith looks back on the period, in the fall of 2005, when he first became a client of the IJ Clinic. “Meeting with the IJ Clinic just really made a lot of sense, and gave us a lot of insight into our business that we didn’t really see before–for instance, just how big we could grow, what kind of decisions we could be making now, what kind of legal ramifications those decisions will be making in the future…[the Clinic] just really opened our eyes to the depth and complexity of the business if we really wanted to move forward.”

The Institute for Justice, founded in 1991, is a public interest law firm that works to promote economic liberty and other individual freedoms. It boasts a number of branches nationwide; but while most work through litigation and grass-roots advocacy, the Chicago clinic is unique in its focus and approach. It was “inspired by two UofC law students who attended a program hosted by the Institute for Justice’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.,” Milnikel explains. “And they spoke up that they would love to have a clinic practicing in [that spirit] at the University of Chicago.” The students, James Ho and Mark Chenoweth, worked with Law School professor Richard Epstein to establish the IJ Clinic in 1998.

Currently, the Clinic represents about twenty to twenty-five clients; its work ranges from drawing up contracts to researching laws, reviewing business deals and a variety of other legal services. In the case of Shawn Smith and his Shawnimals, the Clinic has helped him establish manufacturing overseas and is “working with him generally on protecting his intellectual property,” Milnikel explains. “His trademarks, his copyrights…we’re part of the ongoing effort to protect those as much as we can under the law, and there are new opportunities for new products, new relationships, new licensing opportunities that are coming up.”

The issue of copyright protection is a particularly thorny one for Smith–he received a letter a couple years ago from another toy company (both Smith and the Clinic declined to name names) claiming that one of his characters looked too much like its own. “This was a shock to Shawn who was working as an artist and creating characters by hand, that he had created lovingly …[but] we were able to talk to the attorneys for the other toy company and sort things out so it didn’t escalate into any real dispute,” Milnikel asserts. Now, with his characters firmly established, Smith faces the problem from the opposite vantage point: “As we’ve grown, there’s more people using our Wee Ninja image without authorization,” he explains. “The Clinic has helped us draft several cease and desist letters to help with such issues.”

Soon, however, Smith will no longer have the Clinic to rely on–both parties agree that their time together is drawing to a close. “At some point, it’s going to make sense that our time with the IJ Clinic is done, and it’ll be sad,” Smith confides, “but we’re right at the cusp with the game being released and some other projects on the horizon…our time with them is probably coming to an end.” But if his future of free legal assistance looks bleak, the future of his Shawnimals looks bright as ever. “[We’re] going to continue to develop the characters, both mass-market and more limited edition pet projects, and [we’re] going to continue to explore licensing…we don’t want to do anything for the sake of doing it, or to make money, but we want to do it because it makes sense to us, because it’s cool,” Smith states. Concerning specific details, he refrains from revealing too much, but Smith does let out that “there’s this new project–we’ll be releasing a new character on a monthly basis, it’s going to be a limited edition character–[the first] should be out the middle to the end of this month.”

As for the IJ Clinic, it’ll keep on doing what it does best–helping entrepreneurs achieve their dreams. “We believe millions of entrepreneurs like Shawn Smith make a wonderful contribution to their communities and the world,” Milnikel claims. “Shawnimals haven’t just given us [fun toys], but he’s creating jobs, he’s creating a role model in himself for other people who have great ideas and hope to one day turn them into something bigger, and he just contributes to a national hopefulness that the people who have wonderful ideas can create wonderful businesses.” Kind of makes you want to go out and hug a Wee Ninja.