To the extent that the internet is a net positive to the world at large (and after the last few years I am open to arguments to the contrary) one of its great gifts is the weird and funny mashups gifted to us by creative folks all over the world. Like peanut butter and chocolate, they take two great things and demonstrate they work well together, or at the very least are odd enough in their juxtaposition to provide the requisite humor. And many creators, for their part, either appreciate the love and creativity that goes into the mashups, or at least recognizes that the work is likely transformative enough to not be subject to a copyright infringement case.
Not so for a recent mashup of ‘Star Trek’ and the works of Dr. Seuss, which was found to be unprotected against copyright infringement claims by a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeal’s Ninth Circuit. The mashup came in the form of a book entitled “Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go”, a Kickstarter project from a company called ComicMix; penned by a ‘Star Trek’ writer, ComicMix claimed that the book was meant as a parodic trek (pun absolutely intended) through the worlds and species featured on the series.
The estate of Dr. Seuss, née Theodor Seuss Geisel, didn’t see the work as such, and filed suit against the company and the book’s authors in 2016. A lower court had ruled in favor of the defendants, but upon appeal, the Circuit Court panel found that the book didn’t meet the standards for fair use applied to works of parody or satire. In its ruling, the panel cited the book’s replication of Seuss-ian details in the illustrations, which few would be able to argue are not distinct and identifiable with Dr. Seuss’ books.
That isn’t to say that the matter is decided; the panel’s ruling simply allows the copyright infringement lawsuit to proceed, wherein each side can once again plead its case. Likely it’s not heartening for the defendants to have even a preliminary ruling go against them, but it’s still on ComicMix and its lawyers to make their case in the proceeding to come. Nor is mashup parody or satire dead as a form; although fair use is a difficult concept to define or pin down, it still offers enough protection for creative types to transform the works of others into something new entirely. Rather, ComicMix simply seems to have gotten it wrong in its own formulation. Moving forward, it could consider its onw Prime Directive to be not interfering in the works of others.