The two men browsing in Benjamin Santoyo's downtown Los Angeles produce store acted like many of his customers, not so much interested in fruit and vegetables as in the enormous pinatas of Winnie the Pooh, The Incredibles, and an orange fish named Nemo, all bobbing from a string tied to the ceiling.
But theirs was an undercover visit on behalf of Disney Enterprises Inc. and four other entertainment industry giants aiming to stop the sale of counterfeit pinatas just as the bust-it-up party activity has become about as mainstream at Southland kids parties as cake, streamers and tortilla chips.
Disney and the other companies, in what experts said was an understandable move to protect their popular cartoon and character properties, filed copyright and trademark infringement lawsuits against Santoyo and another nearby shop owner for allegedly selling the counterfeit pinatas.
Although Santoyo settled last month for an undisclosed sum, word of the legal action against these two small Los Angeles vendors -- who peddle their wares in an informal pinata district centered along Olympic Boulevard and Central Avenue -- has reverberated through the garages, backyards and warehouses of pinata makers as far away as Santa Ana, who worry that they too will be targeted.
But will they stop making the images of Cinderella and Dora?
"Without that, we don't have much of a business," said South Los Angeles pinata maker Marta Garcia. "We need to be careful, but it's hard because the demand is for the characters on television and in the theaters."
Although pinatas in Southern California have become a popular, crossover game at kids parties regardless of ethnicity, for many Latino parents, especially those with Mexican roots, bringing home a bulging, larger-than-life pinata is a joyful tradition and the whimsical centerpiece of a family party.
"This reminds me of when I was a child and we would go to the market to look for pinatas for parties," said Leti Ramirez, 34, a mother of two and native of Ensenada who was looking for the largest Winnie the Pooh pinata she could find on a recent weekday. "I would not want to buy them any other way."
A cottage industry of pinata makers, known as pinateros, works to satisfy this specialized local demand. They produce renditions of cartoon characters that are primarily sold in markets and other small shops in heavily Latino neighborhoods.
The work of the pinateros bears little resemblance to the smaller, lightweight pinatas that are typically found in suburban chain stores and sell for about $20 or less. One party-goods industry expert estimated that about 10 million pinatas are sold annually throughout the country.
Many pinateros operate largely outside the measurable industry, selling pinatas by the thousands to neighborhood vendors for about $8 or $9 each. Vendors typically sell to the public for $12 to $15. But many of the pinatas sold by Santoyo were illegal because they resembled licensed characters and were sold without the owner's permission, according to the Disney lawsuit that also included plaintiffs Sanrio Co., Cartoon Network, Viacom International Inc. and Hanna-Barbera Productions.
"Our characters and our brands are the lifeblood of our business and we are vigilant about protecting our intellectual property against illegal usage," said Julia Phelps, spokeswoman for Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, the channel where "Dora the Explorer" and other characters appear.
Disney declined to comment on the pinata lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in February and April. But the company has long been a staunch protector of its trademarked properties. It once sued a Florida day-care center that displayed paintings of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy on the outside walls of the school. The school took the images down.
Copyright and trademark experts said that although the handmade pinata industry is small compared to the sales of the large entertainment companies, the holder of a copyright or trademark must constantly protect its position. The suit against pinata vendors is typical of the ongoing battles to protect valuable properties.
"It doesn't seem like a fair fight," said John Palfrey, a Harvard lecturer who focuses on intellectual property. Heads of major corporations must say, "We see a lot of infringement and we have to pick on somewhere to try to stop it.... The reality is [Disney] has to do it."
The lawsuit against Santoyo was the second time the vendor had been sued by Disney for alleged copyright infringement. In 1998, Santoyo said, he paid a $5,000 out-of-court settlement to Disney and agreed to stop selling Disney-character pinatas.
Disney emissaries who returned to his shop in February alleged in court documents that they bought or saw for sale a variety of party supplies, including pinatas, plates and goody boxes, that illegally used images of protected properties.