Dr. Seuss and Fair Use, What 20+ Years Will Do!

Over twenty years ago, the Ninth Circuit decided the case of Dr. Seuss Enterprises., LP v. Penguin Books USA, Inc.  That case involved a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Dr. Seuss over a book entitled The Cat NOT in the Hat! A Parody by Dr. Juice.  This book was about the O.J. Simpson trial presented in Seuss style rhyming verse and animation. The work begins:

A happy town

Inside L.A.

Where rich folks play

The day away.

But under the moon

The 12th of June.

Two victims flail

Assault!  Assail! 

Somebody will go to jail! Who will it be?

Oh my!  Oh me!

The book also presents a view of the OJ Simpson criminal murder trial from OJ’s perspective: “A man this famous/Never hires/Lawyers like/Jacoby Meyers/When you’re accused of a killing scheme/You need to build a real Dream Team.” The book’s illustrations included Simpson depicted 13 times in the distinctively scrunched and shabby stovepipe hat worn by the Cat in the Hat.  The defendants claimed that their use was non-infringing fair use; the court did not agree.

Over twenty years later (and just this month), the Ninth Circuit decided the case of Dr. Seuss Enterprises v. Comicmix, LLC et al., which involved a copyright infringement lawsuit over a Star Trek and Dr. Seuss mashup entitled Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go.  This work intermixes Star Trek characters like Captain Kirk, Spock and the Starship Enterprise in the Seuss world; for example, the cover features Kirk standing on a small moon or asteroid above the Enterprise  evoking the rainbow ringed disc and tower or tube pictured on the original work’s cover, The defendants admitted that they “painstakingly attempted” to make their illustrations “nearly identical” in certain respects to illustrations in the Dr. Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go, and went to great lengths to mimic the Seuss writing style.  The defendants claimed that their use was non-infringing fair use; the court agreed.  As the Grinch said, “how could it be so?”

In Cat NOT in the Hat, the defendant’s case relied mostly on fair use; primarily that the work was a parody.  The Ninth Circuit, in determining the first fair use factor – the purpose and character of the use – found the book was not a parody.  The court noted that while the book “does broadly mimic Dr. Seuss’ characteristic style, it does not hold his style up to ridicule” and that “[t]he stanzas have no critical bearing on the substance or style of The Cat in the Hat.”  The court essentially closed the door on the defendant’s case when it noted that there is “no effort to create a transformative work with “new expression or meaning.”

In Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go, the defendants also relied on the fair use defense and claimed that their work was a parody. While the Ninth Circuit, similar to Cat NOT in the Hat found the work not to be a parody, the court went on to determine that it was “highly transformative.”

It’s challenging to reconcile the treatment of the first fair use factor in the two cases, as the Ninth Circuit in Cat NOT in the Hat did not go into an analysis of the transformative nature of the work separate and apart from the inquiry into whether it was a parody.  In the Boldly Go case the court went to great lengths to explain how and why the work is transformative.  The court noted that while the defendants borrowed (liberally at times) from the Seuss work, the “elements borrowed were always adapted or transformed” by the inclusion of Star Trek (or Trek like) characters; the defendants’ additional material reframed the original material from a unique Star Trek viewpoint.

In considering the third factor[1], whether the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole are reasonable in relation to the purpose of copying, the court in Cat took great issue with the defendant’s frequent use of the Cat in the Hat image and rejected the philosophical parallels the defendants attempted to draw between the two works, calling it a completely unconvincing post-hoc characterization.

However, in Boldly Go the court found that the defendants took no more from the original work than was necessary in order to create a mash-up of Go and Star Trek.  The court went to great lengths to examine the elements of the Seuss work entitled to copyright protection and measure the extent of the defendants’ copying of those elements.  For example, the court noted that Seuss “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.”  Even though Boldly Go was found not to be a parody, the court found that it did not “copy more than is necessary to accomplish its transformative purpose.”

Like Cat, Boldly Go liberally copied certain aspects of Go, however, the court specifically noted that the defendants did not copy verbatim text or replicate entire images.  To the author’s understanding, neither did Cat NOT in the Hat. The only significant difference that may explain the disparate treatment of this factor is that Cat NOT made liberal use of the Cat figure while Boldly Go apparently made no use of any major Seuss character.

The last fair use factor examines the effect (e.g., market harm) the infringing work may have on the value of the copyrighted work.  The key purpose is to determine to what degree the infringing work is a substitute for the original work.  Transformativeness and this factor are closely related; if a new work is transformative it’s not a substitute for the original work. In Cat NOT in the Hat the court said that because the work was not transformative, “market substitution is at least more certain, and market harm may be more readily inferred.”

In Boldly Go the court noted that Go is an extremely popular book for graduates and Seuss or its licensees have published many derivatives of Go.  The plaintiff claimed the work in question would harm its licensing opportunities.  The court found that Boldly Go is not a substitute for the original work as a children’s book; its impact on the market for graduation gifts or derivatives is a closer question. Because the court found Boldly Go to be transformative, the plaintiff was required to introduce evidence showing harm and such showing must be by a preponderance of the evidence.  The court found that the plaintiff failed to meet this burden.  Because the plaintiff introduced no evidence tending to show that it would lose licensing opportunities or revenues as a result of publication of Boldly Go or similar works, the potential harm to plaintiff’s market remains hypothetical.  As such, the court concluded that this factor favors neither party.

In Cat Not in the Hat the court found that the weight of the fair use factors favored a finding against fair use while Bold Go resulted in the opposite.  While these cases may seem tough to reconcile, there are distinct factual differences that may have caused the same court to find one way or another.  Also, followers of fair use cases appreciate that fair use is by no means static; it’s more like an active pendulum.

[1] In both matters, the second factor – the nature of the copyrighted work – favored the plaintiff.  This is usually the case with dealing with creative works.