When a comic artist and a science fiction writer get an idea, it is certain to be a good one. Recently, award-winning DC Comics artist Ty Templeton teamed with “Star Trek” writer David Gerrold to collaborate on a mashup parody of Star Trek and the Dr. Seuss favorite, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” The project was organized by ComicMix, a company formed for just such mashups and crowdfunded by $30,000 in donations. While New York fans waited excitedly, the project soon stalled under accusations that it violated copyright law.
The copyrights for all the works of the late Dr. Seuss are controlled by Dr. Seuss Enterprise, which sent several cease-and-desist letters to ComicMix after learning of the mashup project, finally filing a lawsuit against the company. Comicmix’s defense was that the project fell under the fair use laws, which permits the use of some copyrighted material under certain circumstances, such as for a transformative purpose. ComicMix claimed the parody was transformative, but Dr. Seuss Enterprise disagreed.
After a federal district court ruled in favor of ComicMix, Seuss amended its complaint and filed again. This time, the court ruled that the creators of the new work, “Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go!” borrowed elements from the original, but those elements were transformed enough to make them distinct from the original. In fact, the judge found that the many differences between the two projects tipped the balance in favor of ComicMix.
Fair use is a challenging part of copyright law, and the courts measure each case individually when applying its tenets. A judge must evaluate the purpose of the new work, the nature of the original work, the amount that the artist borrows from the copyrighted work in the new work and how the use of the copyrighted work will affect the market. Those in New York with conflicts related to fair use would benefit from sound legal advice and guidance.