ComicMix Suffers Setback in Star Trek/Seuss Mashup Lawsuit

Revoking part of an order she handed down this summer, federal Judge Janis L. Sammartino ruled December 8 that Dr. Seuss Enterprises gets to engage both copyright and trademark claims in a lawsuit against ComicMix for a crowd-funded book project titled Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go!

The litigation began last November, during a Kickstarter campaign to fund Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go!, featuring the writing of David Gerrold, the art of Ty Templeton, and the editorial skills of ComicMix’s Glenn Hauman, Dr. Seuss Enterprises (DSE) filed suit for damages claiming the project infringed their copyright and trademark on Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go!

The judge had dismissed the trademark infringement portion of the claims in June (“ComicMix Gains Partial Victory in Dr. Seuss Lawsuit Over Literary Mash-Up”), however, The Hollywood Reporter story “Lawsuit Over Mashup of ‘Star Trek’ and Dr. Seuss Gets Past Alpha Quadrant” said the judge has considered an amended complaint and is allowing all the claims to move forward including one for unfair competition. (Here’s the full opinion.)

The biggest difference is the analysis of trademark and quite notably, what is causing ComicMix some trouble on that front is the font of its title.

Nominative fair use is an important concept in trademark law, referring to certain allowances to use another’s mark for purposes like commentary, criticism, comparative advertising, or parody. The standards were articulated by an appeals court in 1992 in a case where newspapers used toll numbers to conduct polls of The New Kids on the Block.

Sammartino looks at three factors to determine whether ComicMix has an appropriate defense of nominative fair use in this dispute. On two of those factors — whether the product in question is readily identifiable without use of the trademark and whether ComicMix has done acts that would falsely suggest sponsorship or endorsement by Dr. Seuss Enterprises — the defendants get the edge. But ComicMix can’t dispense with the trademark and unfair competition claims thanks to that other factor — whether its use of Dr. Seuss’ mark is more than reasonably necessary to identify it.

The mark in question is the title, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”

Judge Sammartino explained:

Defendants not only use the words ‘Oh! The Places You’ll Go!’ in the title of Boldly but also use the exact font used by Plaintiff. The look of the lettering is unquestionably identical on both books, down to the shape of the exclamation point. This situation is similar to that in Toho [a precedent case]. The Court finds it was unnecessary for Defendants to use the distinctive font as used on Go! to communicate their message (i.e., that Boldly is a mash-up of the Go! and Star Trek universes).

The reference to Toho is a callback to a case made by Toho, the controller of the Godzilla intellectual property, against a book publisher in 1998.

Glenn Hauman portrayed the decision to ComicMix readers in a positive light, focusing on this part of the ruling — “Judge rules that an illustration style can’t be a trademark”.

Yesterday, Judge Janis Sammartino handed down a ruling in our ongoing case, Dr. Seuss Enterprises v. ComicMix, allowing the case to proceed to discovery while narrowing the allegations in significant ways.

Quoting from the decision:

Plaintiff cited no authority to support its assertion that its general “style” is a protectable trademark. Plaintiff only argues that the book can be subject to both trademark and copyright protection and that distinctive characters can qualify as trademarks. Plaintiff claims the Ninth Circuit has recognized Plaintiff owns trademark rights to “the character illustration of the Cat [in the Hat’s] ‘stove-pipe hat’.” But the illustration of the Cat’s hat is different than the general “illustration style” and non-specific “characters and backgrounds found throughout” Plaintiff’s books, in which Plaintiff asserts trademark rights now. And Plaintiff does not allege trademark rights in any specific character or background image in [Oh, The Places You’ll] Go! The Court is not holding illustrations of specific characters within Go! are precluded from trademark protection, but at this stage of the proceedings and based on the information in front of the Court, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s claimed general “illustration style” is not protectable.

Hauman continued:

…When we speak of an artist’s “trademark style” we’re not actually speaking of a legal trademark, and as such it’s not something that can be legally claimed.

And this means that if, say, Ty Templeton draws a portrait of me looking like I was drawn by Dr. Seuss, there’s not a thing Dr. Seuss Enterprises can do about it.

Of course, this is generally a good thing. This means that no artist can be charged with stealing someone else’s “trademark style” or the way they draw (or for that matter, how they shoot a photograph or a movie). We all learn from each other, we all influence each other— particularly in comics— and we all build on other works and artistic traditions and styles to create new works of art to tell stories.

The judge summed up her decision — “the Court again cannot say as a matter of law that Defendants’ use of Plaintiff’s copyrighted material was fair,” which could be up to a jury if the case goes to trial. She denied ComcMix et al’s motions to dismiss DSE’s claim of copyright infringement, trademark infringement and unfair competition.

[Thanks to Carl Slaughter for the story.]

2 thoughts on “ComicMix Suffers Setback in Star Trek/Seuss Mashup Lawsuit

  1. What I’ve seen over the years is any such case where the product is sold is very, very likely to result in the defendant losing the case. It really doesn’t matter where the profits (if any result) will be going.

  2. Pingback: ComicMix Whittles Away Another Leg of Star Trek/Seuss Mashup Lawsuit | File 770

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