Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog have been traipsing through Walt Disney Co. commercials and over the pages of Disney marketing materials without a license, the characters' owner says in a lawsuit.

Henson Associates Inc., which owns Piggy, Kermit and other Muppets, sued Disney on Wednesday for alleged unauthorized use of the characters.The lawsuit, filed in federal court, charges Disney used images of Muppets without a license in TV commercials, movies, books, brochures,

T-shirts and other merchandise - and in Disney's 1990 annual report.

The legal action stems from confusion over whether Disney has the right to use the Muppet characters after merger talks with Henson Associates broke down in December.

It also marks a low in a relationship that once was hailed as a touching epitaph for Jim Henson, the Muppet father and company founder who died unexpectedly from pneumonia a year ago at 53.

The lawsuit accuses Disney of "outright theft of Jim Henson's legacy" and "fostering the unmistakable impression that the Muppet characters are part of Disney Inc.'s profit-making machine."

Henson is trying to bar Disney "from performing, advertising, merchandising and acting in any way that suggests Disney owns or has any rights to the Muppets."

Henson also is trying to prevent the springtime opening of Disney's "Kermit the Frog Presents: Muppet Vision 3-D," a production scheduled for Disney World in Orlando, Fla. The lawsuit contends it was Henson's last major work.

It also seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from Disney.

Disney, based in Burbank, Calif., called lawsuit "an enormous distortion of the facts and an unfortunate break with the legacy of a fine relationship with Disney that Jim Henson left behind."

Disney spokesman Edwin Okun said an agreement signed with Henson in 1989 gave Disney "implied license" to show the characters.