I mentioned the Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. v ComicMix, LLC case in two previous blog posts (here and here). Recently, the court District Court for the Southern District of California issued a summary judgment in the case. In its ruling, the court found that the ComicMix book, Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go!, was entitled to a fair use finding and dismissed the case.
By way of background, ComicMix launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 to fund a mash-up book in the style of Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go, but instead using characters from Star Trek: The Original Series. The Kickstarter campaign raised almost $30,000, and ComicMix had discussions with publishers and retailers about distributing the book. ComicMix did not seek to license from either Seuss Enterprises or CBS/Paramount, the owners of Star Trek, because they believed their work to be a parody and hence constituted fair use under copyright law. After some back-and-forth correspondence between Seuss Enterprises and ComicMix, Seuss Enterprises filed a copyright and trademark infringement lawsuit in November 2016.
During the next two years, the case wound its way through the litigation process. Early on, the court found the work to not be a parody, but did believe it was transformative. However, it declined to rule on the issue. Meanwhile, ComicMix was able to get the trademark claims related to the title dismissed.
In the most recent summary judgment ruling that addressed the remaining claims, the court again revisited ComicMix’s fair use defense. After weighing all of the fair use factors, the court found that the balance was close, but slightly favored ComicMix. Working in ComicMix’s favor was that even though the work was commercial, the court found it to be transformative. The court also found ComicMix’s book did not take more material than was necessary for the creation of its book, and Seuss Enterprises could not prove there would be market harm to its works, or its licensing programs, if ComicMix’s book were to be released. The court also ruled that Dr. Seuss’ illustration style was not a protectable trademark right, and that the typeface used in the title of the work is also not a protectable trademark.
A few notes of caution for readers. First, this case is not yet over. Seuss Enterprises could appeal the decision to an appellate court, and the outcome could be different. Personally, I think the court has it right in this scenario, but one can never be certain. Second, this decision only applies to the Dr. Seuss elements incorporated into ComicMix’s book. If CBS/Paramount were to sue over the Star Trek elements used in the book, the analysis of the fair use factors could turn out differently. Finally, as I’ve said before, fair use is a defense to copyright infringement, and it is performed on a case-by-case basis. If someone thinks you are infringing on their work, they will probably sue you, and a court will decide if it’s a fair use. If that happens, it will take a significant amount of time and money to settle the issue, as evidenced by ComicMix’s appeal for help funding this litigation that I talked about last year.
Overall, it is a good win for ComicMix, and it helps shed some light on how courts view mash-up works in relationship to fair use. However, this does not mean that all mash-up works are automatically entitled to fair use, and anyone creating them should proceed with caution.
The court opinion can be found here.
“(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” 17 U.S.C. Sec. 107.