Things Creators Can Learn From Seuss v. ComicMix

I listened yesterday morning to oral arguments presented (via video conference) on Monday before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case Dr. Seuss Enterprises v. ComicMix LLC. As a quick recap, in 2016, Dr. Seuss Enterprises (DSE) filed a copyright claim against publisher ComicMix over a mash-up book called Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go!. The author/illustrator team who created the work used iconic illustrations from various titles in the Seuss portfolio, and combined the images with themes and characters from the Start Trek series. In 2019, a California District Court found that “Boldly” was fair use, applying first and fourth factor analyses that many creators found troubling. 

For deeper dives into the legal particulars, see my post from last August and/or posts here and here by Stephen Carlisle of NOVA Southeastern University. But suffice to say, I think most copyright watchers would agree that the appellate panel also found the District Court’s fair use analysis disconcerting and will at least remand, if it does not overturn the decision. Already quoted on social media by copyright advocates is this riposte by Judge M. Margaret McKeown:

“The district court seemed to take the position that if you take existing expression and then you interspersed it with new expression, you have a transformative work. That is a definition of transformative use that I haven’t seen before. It would seem to sting the notion of copyright protection, and almost everything would be a fair use.”

While it can be folly to read too much into judges’ comments at oral arguments, the panel did seem to express concern with three key points in this case:  1) that the lower court may have erred in finding “Boldly” a transformative work under the first fair use factor; 2) that the lower court applied the wrong analysis in considering the potential market harm to DSE under the fourth fair use factor; and 3) as a procedural matter intertwining the two factors, that even a correct finding of transformativeness does not shift the burden from the defendant to the plaintiff to disprove (or prove) potential market harm under the fourth factor. 

Now, I could break down what that all means, but would frankly rather wait until the court renders its decision, and, in the meantime, note that the complexity implied by these considerations leads to a different proposal I would make to most creators out there:  Don’t do this to yourselves. There are way better places you could go.

If you have talent and a desire to express something to the world—and you would rather spend your time creating works than fighting legal battles—the decisions made by “Boldly’s” authors in this instance provide a pretty good guide (Things 1-5, if you will) for avoiding legal complications, even if you want to parody classic material.  

Thing One – Learn What Parody Is

Thanks, in large part, to the volume of works used in funny YouTube videos and such, the word parody is too often invoked to describe every use of a work for the purpose of comic effect. This is an error, both as a literary and legal definition of parody. As discussed in more detail in this post in 2014, a true parody must comment on the original work being used. When ComicMix attorney Dan Booth was asked about this distinction on Monday, he averred that “Boldly” parodies the original work because Seuss’s character is “individualistic and narcissistic,” while Star Trek conveys themes of “teamwork” and “universalism.” 

While I am in no position to judge evidence I cannot fully review, that sounds like a very slippery (i.e. loose) grasp on any claim to parody. Merely using protected works in a new context does not favor a finding of fair use. If “Boldly” is indeed a parody, it should directly lampoon the values or ideas expressed in “Go” by mocking or critiquing Seuss’s original themes of individual empowerment through imagining possibilities. (And even then, we get into some murky waters with regard to copying visual works for the purpose of commenting on textual expression. But let’s not go there, boldly or otherwise, right now.)

I would further argue that the authors’ use of illustrations from multiple Seuss books militates against a finding that “Boldly” is directly commenting upon “Go.” In fact, one illustration from “Boldly,” shown on this ComicMix post from 2017, depicts two Spocks in the manner of Seuss’s The Zax, and the text actually reinforces a theme of individuality. So, maybe there is real parody in “Boldly” somewhere, but it doesn’t sound like there is.  

Thing Two – A Mashup is Not Automatically Fair Use

At oral argument, Booth described the mashup as an “innovative form that takes different sources and puts them in dialogue with one another.” Okay. But even if that were a universally applied description of the mashup aesthetic, it does nothing to place the form in any special category of consideration under a fair use analysis. 

As a general statement, one can assume that, for instance, two sources “in dialogue with one another” will create a third voice, and that this would be consistent with the purpose of fair use, but any given mashup will be subject to the same case-by-case analysis that will be applied to any other type of use. Moreover, because mashups generally involve works owned by more than one copyright owner, they can invite more than one legal complaint.

Thing Three – Apply an Inverse Rule When Creating Parody

One of the errors I find most troubling in this case, even to hear it presented, is the implication that ComicMix needed to create imitations of Seuss’s visual works in order to convey the parodic nature of “Boldly” (assuming parody is even present). This argument is anathema to what I would describe as an inverse proportion rule that says:  The more widely recognized the original work, the less the parodist needs to copy in order to express a commentary about the work.

Seuss’s illustrations are so iconic and so universally recognized that one need not copy every tittle and jot with the precision of a Talmudic scribe in order to lampoon the work—if indeed parody is the real goal. On the contrary, a true parodist would seek to mock an artist’s visual language by selecting certain characteristics to overstate or understate, rather than create a work that so slavishly mimics the original that an ordinary observer would fail to perceive that any visual parody exists at all.

This is one of the weakest aspects of ComicMix’s appeal to parody in my view—that an average consumer, seeing “Boldly” on a store shelf, might easily think that DSE had produced the mashup. Never mind the trademark implications, but a sendup of Dr. Seuss should be almost immediately recognizable as not Seuss and yet Seuss-like enough to know that a joke is being conveyed. We see examples of effective parody through limited copying all the time. Hence the general fair use guideline, to take only as much of the work as necessary is, in fact, easier to apply when parodying the most recognizable works.

Thing Four – Be More Creative

Let’s be honest. A great deal of the time, making substantial use of existing works—especially works as famous as the Geisel oeuvre—is motivated by marketing more than a burning need to express something new. Again, I won’t judge “Boldly” as a work without being able to read the whole thing—and its creators are experienced professionals—but Seuss is such an obvious source for this kind of appropriation that it is difficult to see such uses as more than gimmicks, seeking to profit off the notoriety of the original. 

My oldest kid and I used to riff on the idea of famous Nazis reading Seuss-like works to children, including the book Oh, Zee Places You Vill Invade (and let’s not get started on the Sneetches with the stars.) But if we had developed that inside joke into a book a la “Boldly,” would it imply transformativeness under a fair use analysis? 

The target of the mockery isn’t Seuss, it’s Nazis. Seuss is merely an obvious context in which to place Nazis for satirical effect, but that would not make this hypothetical use a fair use. More specifically, if we did produce such a book, would we need to slavishly copy Seuss’s illustrations to make the joke work? Nope. Readers would get it through the use of illustrations that evoke Seussness without copying Seuss. 

Thing 5 – Work Around Copyright

Finally, if the goal is to produce new creative works—rather than spend years in copyright disputes—it is worth remembering the many, many stories in which creators start out intending to use existing works and then, by navigating around copyrights, discover new and better ideas that would not have occurred otherwise. Happens all the time. 

I wrote about this process in 2013, and that post was later cited in a paper by scholar Joseph Fishman called Working Around Copyright, in which he describes, in legal-scholar terms, what millions of creators already know: that overcoming obstacles to initial creative instincts tends to produce better results. And when that first instinct is to copy protected works, there’s a good chance that the still-untapped idea is probably much better.  

© 2020, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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