08/03/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Back in 1963, graphic designer Harvey Ball was commissioned by the State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, Mass., to create an upbeat icon to lift employee morale. Ball, now 77, sketched a circle with two eyes and a loopy grin and colored it yellow. "It only took a few minutes," he recalls.
Thus was born the happy face. Ball was paid a paltry $45 for his work, and the company did not register it as a trademark. By the beginning of the '70s enterprisers the world over were slapping his sunny symbol on everything from ashtrays to underwear. Ball watched unperturbed for decades. But this year he learned that French businessman Franklin Loufrani, claiming he independently created a nearly identical logo in 1971, had trademarked the famous face in some 80 countries. "It annoys me that he comes along and takes credit," says Ball, "and is pushing for world domination of the smile-face market."
"I don't care if he designed the Smiley face," replies Loufrani, 55, whose only concern is who holds the trademark. "We promote, we own, we market." As for Ball, a father of four who lives with wife Winifred, 75, in Worcester, he just wants to set the record straight. During World War II he barely escaped death during a Japanese mortar attack on Okinawa. "When you've been in a war and people around you have been killed, your sense of values gets very basic: You're alive," he says. Besides, "I made the entire world smile."