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When Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) wrote “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” in 1990, he likely suspected his book would inspire an endless stream of high school graduates — but the rhyming writer probably didn’t envision that the heirs to his intellectual property would someday be going to court over a Kickstarter-funded Star Trek-themed parody of his book.
The fight began after ComicMix launched a Kickstarter page to fund a Trekkie-themed version called Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go! The campaign to fund printing and distribution of the book prompted a cease-and-desist letter from Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which controls Geisel’s IP. When the authors didn’t respond, Seuss’ heirs sent Kickstarter a takedown notice and the company disabled the campaign. This suit followed.
ComicMix argued its book is protected by fair use, and made some headway in the first round of the legal battle. U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino earlier this month granted a partial motion to dismiss the suit, finding that the work was transformative — although she doesn’t agree that the book is a parody. She says it’s a “mash-up.”
“Go! tells the tale of a young boy setting out on adventure and discovering and confronting many strange beings and circumstances along his path,” writes Sammartino. “Boldly tells the tale of the similarly strange beings and circumstances encountered during the voyages of the Star Trek Enterprise, and it does so through Go!’s communicative style and method. Go!’s rhyming lines and striking images, as well as other Dr. Seuss works, are often copied by Boldly, but the copied elements are always interspersed with original writing and illustrations that transform Go!’s pages into repurposed, Star-Trek–centric ones.”
While Sammartino found that Go! copies many aspects of Seuss’ original, she believes it’s no more than “necessary to accomplish its transformative purpose.” (Read her thorough comparison of Vulcans to Zaxes here.) But she found the fair use factors to be in a “near-perfect” balance and couldn’t grant the motion to dismiss Seuss’ copyright claim absent evidence from ComicMix that its book doesn’t negatively affect the potential market for the original.
“This case presents an important question regarding the emerging ‘mash-up’ culture where artists combine two independent works in a new and unique way,” writes Sammartino.
The court sided with ComicMix on Seuss’ trademark claims relating to the title of the book and the unfair competition claims, granting the motion to dismiss with leave to amend.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises filed a first amended complaint seeking to fortify its case. It starts by expanding upon the derivative titles of Go! that it has created, including Oh, Baby, the Places You’ll Go! and a journal titled Oh, the Places I’ve Been! In addition to creating derivatives based on the IP, DSE also says it licenses the rights for things including a live-action production at a Florida theme park called Oh! The Stories You’ll Hear! and a line of Dr. Seuss-branded Chuck Taylors.
“DSE’s primary focus is to protect the integrity of the Dr. Seuss books while expanding beyond books into ancillary areas through this licensing program,” writes attorney Gina Durham in the amended complaint. “This effort is a strategic part of the overall mission to nurture and safeguard the relationship consumers have with Dr. Seuss books and characters and to control the goodwill associated with Dr. Seuss.”
The chances that consumers will be confused is high, Durham argues, especially because it is possible the two books would be displayed side-by-side in the children’s section of a retail store or online.
Durham also adds a note that CBS Studios, which owns the relevant Star Trek IP, sent ComicMix its own cease-and-desist letter in February. The studio has not yet sued, but certainly isn’t shy about protecting its rights. It sued the makers of a crowdfunded fan film in December 2015. That case settled in January.
ComicMix sent The Hollywood Reporter a statement in response to the amended complaint. “The new complaint shows even more clearly that all claims should be dismissed,” it says. “We remain committed to our position: Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go! is a work fully protected by fair use. And it’s fun, too. We look forward to showing it to the world at long last.”
The full amended complaint, complete with more side-by-side comparisons, is posted below.