from the set-phasers-to-fair-use dept
It’s been roughly two years since we last had any update on the lawsuit that was brought by the estate of Dr. Seuss against ComicMix, a group of artists that created a mashup book in the styles of Dr. Seuss and Star Trek. The suit was over trademark and copyright rights, with the court ruling against the estate two years ago on the trademark claim. At the time of the ruling, the court gave the estate two weeks to prove there was any real harm done on the copyright side, after already ruling the trademark uses were fair use. Given the context of the judge’s comments in the request, it was clear the Suess Estate had a hell of a hilll to climb.
A hill that now, nearly two years on, appears to have been insurmountable, as the firm representing ComicMix has announced that it has prevailed on the fair use copyright claims as well.
On March 12, 2019, after more than two years of litigation, the United States District Court for the Southern District of California (DSE’s home court) gave a learned, thoroughly reasoned decision that strongly affirms the fair use doctrine. District Judge Janis L. Sammartino reaffirmed her earlier findings that Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go! is a highly transformative work that takes no more from the Dr. Seuss books than necessary for its purposes. Under those circumstances, she found that DSE could only defeat the fair use defense by demonstrating that publishing the book would be likely to cause market harm to DSE, and she found that it failed to do so, leaving its claims of market harm simply hypothetical.
As for the trademark claims, Judge Sammartino had already found that the First Amendment protected the use of the title of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! in the title of the Defendants’ book. At the summary judgment stage, she determined that there is no such thing as a trademark in an artistic style, and that DSE does not have an enforceable trademark in the typeface used for the title, so the use of a Seussian typeface for Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go! is not trademark infringement.
The ruling itself is, as the law firm states, thoroughly reasoned. It takes the requests for summary judgement from both parties in turn, before taking on the question of fair use itself. Again, the analysis here is detailed, but the court’s central ruling is whether or not Boldly interferes with the Seuss’ works marketability:
Further, the Court is not persuaded that Boldly “has the same intrinsic purpose and function as Go!,” i.e., “providing an illustrated book, with the same uplifting message that would appeal to graduating high school and college seniors,” see Pl.’s MSJ at 17, or that Defendants “act[ed] in bad faith.” See id. at 17. While Boldly may be an illustrated book with an uplifting message (something over which Plaintiff cannot exercise a monopoly), it is one tailored to fans of Star Trek’s Original Series. See, e.g., Duvdevani Decl. Ex. 2 at 67:1–68:3. Further, that Defendants discussed the necessity of a license and determined that Boldly was a “fair use parody” without seeking the advice of counsel does not amount to bad faith.
The court then turns to the nature of the use of the original work. The court had originally ruled for ComicMix’s motion to dismiss specifically on the question of how Boldly used Seuss’ work, noting that the use of the work was both not a complete copying of the original and that it was obviously infused with new meaning. The Seuss Estate then argued that Oracle America Inc. v. Google LLC resolved that mashing two properties together in the way that Boldly does would not result in a work suddenly becoming fair use if the copying of the Seuss work was deemed to be substantial.
The court was not impressed.
Examining the cover of each work, for example, Plaintiff may claim copyright protection in the unique, rainbow-colored rings and tower on the cover of Go! Plaintiff, however, cannot claim copyright over any disc-shaped item tilted at a particular angle; to grant Plaintiff such broad protection would foreclose a photographer from taking a photo of the Space Needle just so, a result that is clearly untenable under—and antithetical to—copyright law.
But that is essentially what Plaintiff attempts to do here. Instead of replicating Plaintiff’s rainbow-ringed disc, Defendants drew a similarly-shaped but decidedly nonSeussian spacecraft—the USS Enterprise—at the same angle and placed a red-and-pink striped planet where the larger of two background discs appears on the original cover. See Duvdevani Decl. Ex. 31, ECF No. 115-11, at 450. Boldly’s cover also features a figure whose arms and hands are posed similarly to those of Plaintiff’s narrator and who sports a similar nose and eyes, but Boldly’s narrator has clearly been replaced by Captain Kirk, with his light, combed-over hair and gold shirt with black trim, dark trousers, and boots.5 Id. Captain Kirk stands on a small moon or asteroid above the Enterprise and, although the movement of the moon evokes the tower or tube pictured on Go!’s cover, the resemblance is purely geometric. Id. Finally, instead of a Seussian landscape, Boldly’s cover is appropriately set in space, prominently featuring stars and planets. Id. In short, “portions of the old work are incorporated into the new work but emerge imbued with a different character.” See Mattel, Inc. v. Walking Mountain Prods., 353 F.3d 792, 804 (9th Cir. 2003).
It goes on and on, but you get the idea. What this ultimately represents is a fantastic ruling for anyone interested in the flourishing of mashup-style cultural output. The kind of creative output that is Boldly, with its transformative meaning and messaging, but utilizing other original works to drive the point home, is certainly an art form onto itself. A ruling other than this one could have murdered that art form in its infancy.
And that isn’t the purpose of copyright law, as this court wisely noted.