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FLCL sequel’s character designs cause a stir — all thanks to a pair of headphones (update)

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Those cat-ear headphones are too close for comfort, artist says

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hidomi headphones in flcl Production I.G./Studio Bones

Like most revivals of iconic works, FLCL’s upcoming return has faced pushback from some fans of the original anime. Since FLCL 2 and FLCL 3’s first teaser debuted this weekend, that skepticism has only ramped up, with many fans — and one well-known online artist — calling foul over a prominent pair of cat-eared headphones.

Wenqing Yan, who goes by the nom de plume Yuumei online, gained a cult following online for Axent Wear Cat Ear headphones, an anime-esque fashion statement that made bank on Indiegogo. When the product’s crowdfunding campaign ended in November 2014, it had raised more than $3 million dollars — 1,172 percent more than Yan’s goal.

The headphones’ look has become ubiquitous in some circles; they’re pretty unmistakable, since they’re not just big, but they also light up. They became even more recognizable when Brookstone licensed the Axent Wear look for a similar line of headphones by Ariana Grande. Yan partnered with the company to help design the special Ariana Grande pair, and Brookstone was sure to credit Axent Wear for its help.

But that’s not the case with the headphones’ latest resurgence, Yan tells Polygon. Their appearance in the in the FLCL trailer comes without her artistic consent, she said.

“While I’m busy at [Anime Expo], I find out that the new FLCL by Adult Swim decided to rip off my headphones design without asking or crediting,” she wrote on Twitter early this morning, appending a sad face emoticon at the end.

The series’ new protagonist is a teen girl named Hidomi, who has yet to be seen without a hulking pair of headphones on. Not only is Hidomi constantly wearing headphones, but they’re ... a heavy pair of light-up, cat-eared ones.

To Yan, these similarities are way too striking.

“As an artist whose work is often stolen to be sold as bootlegs, or plagiarized in contests and schools, it's unfortunate to see more of it in other instances,” she said to Polygon. “I want to bring attention to how this kind of behavior is not okay.”

Not everyone agrees, even if many viewers aren’t into Hidomi’s design. Her headphones look out of place in the unique, abstract world of FLCL, some fans have said on Twitter; others point to it as a sign of the revival’s lack of charm.

Others still side with or against Yan’s assertion that the cat-ear headphones are directly inspired by hers. While both Yan and a number of her followers say this is a disregard for the artist’s copyright, others say it’s just a reference, and that using the design without its specific brand markers is fair game.

“At no point did I sell the copyright or patent,” Yan maintained. “I am still the owner and whoever is responsible for the FLCL headphones rip off did not get my permission to use it.”

We’ve asked the artist if she’s reached out to Adult Swim, which will air FLCL 2 and 3 next year, about the similarities between the designs. We’ll update when we hear back from either Yan or the cable channel, which we also contacted.

This kind of thing is not uncommon in anime or any kind of TV. Brands from Apple to Coca-Cola are seen in all kinds of shows, with their most identifiable logos or designs erased as to stay on the right side of the copyright line. In the case of these headphones, some viewers pointed out that it appears a logo from FLCL’s canonical universe is printed on them, possibly differentiating them from Yan’s design.

Hidomi’s headphones in FLCL do look a lot like the Axent Wear pair — but it may be tough to prove they’re identical.

Update: Yan will now be credited for her design, according to a tweet.

“Thanks for all the support with the FLCL2 headphones issue,” she wrote on her account. “Production I.G. reached out to me and offered to credit, happy end!”

It’s not apparent how she will be credited in the show when it launches.