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Dr. Seuss-Star Trek ‘mashup’ violates copyright law

Posted On: Dec. 21, 2020 2:40 PM CST


A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling and held that a “mashup” of Dr. Seuss and Star Trek violated copyright law.

Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go by Star Trek writer David Gerrold, which was illustrated by Ty Templeton and edited by “Trekkie” Glenn Hauman, “is a mashup that borrows liberally – graphically and otherwise – from (The Places You’ll Go!) and other works by Dr. Seuss, and that uses Captain Kirk and his spaceship Enterprise to tell readers that ‘life is an adventure but it will be tough,’” according to Friday’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in Dr. Seuss Enterprises L.L.C. v. ComicMix LLC, Glenn Human, David Jerrold Friedman, AKA David Gerrold; Ty Templeton.

“The creators thought their Star Trek primer would be ‘pretty well protected by parody,’ but acknowledged that ‘people in black robes’ may disagree. Indeed, we do,” the unanimous ruling by a three-judge appeals board panel said.

Mr. Gerrold and Mr. Hauman, vice president of publishing company ComicMix, based in Norwalk, Connecticut, agreed to create a “Star Trek Primer” mash-up, which the ruling defined as “something created by combining elements from two or more sources.”

After considering other literary sources, they “decided to use Go! and to place the Enterprise crew in a colorful Seussian landscape full of wacky arches, names, and creature -  a world that is familiar to Dr. Seuss readers but a strange new planet for Captain Kirk’s team,” the ruling said. 

In August 2016, ComicMix started a successful crowdsourcing campaign for production and other costs and eventually raised close to $30,000, according to the ruling.

The San Diego-based Seuss organization, which owns the intellectual property in Dr. Seuss’ works, sent ComicMix a cease-and-desist letter and two follow-up letters, then filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Diego charging copyright and trademark infringement. The District Court granted the defendants summary judgment dismissing the case.

The appeals court panel overturned the copyright infringement claim, but affirmed the trademark ruling’s dismissal.

In overturning the copyright ruling, the decision said the defendants violated the “fair use” doctrine based on the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used; and the effect of the use upon the copyrighted material’s potential market or value.

“Most telling is ComicMix’s repackaging of Go!’s illustrations,” the ruling said. “The Star Trek characters step into the shoes of Seussian characters in a Seussian world that is otherwise unchanged,” it said.

“Although ComicMix’s work need not boldly go where no one has gone before, its packaging, copying and lack of critique of Seuss, coupled with its commercial use of Go! do not result in a transformative use,” it said.

The panel did uphold the trademark claim’s dismissal. “Boldly is not explicitly misleading as to its source, although it uses the Seussian font in the cover, the Seussian style of illustration and even a title that adds just one word – Boldly – to the famous title - Oh, the Places You’ll Go!,” it said.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in a statement it “is thrilled with the Ninth Circuit’s decision that defendants’ unauthorized use of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was not a fair use.”

It said the company “recognizes the broad-reaching significance of this appellate decision.”

The defendants’ attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.