Satire v Parody: Dr Seuss Enterprises v Penguin Books

Dr Seuss Enterprises, L.P. (“Seuss Enterprises”) holds the majority of the copyright and trademark rights to Theodor Geisel’s Dr Seuss series of books. Dr Seuss published 47 books, which have sold over 35 million copies around the world. His books use playful rhymes and drawings of fantastic creatures to entertain children. In 1957, The Cat in the Hat was first published.

The Cat NOT in the Hat! was announced by Dove, Inc. in 1995 as a forthcoming book. Dr Juice’s parody, written by Alan Katz and Chris Wrinn. The book was distributed by Penguin Books USA.

The Cat NOT in the Hat! tells the story of the Orenthal James Simpson (“O.J. Simpson”) double-murder trial.

Dr Seuss’s books are intended to pique a child’s imagination with playful rhymes and illustrations that explain and portray fantastical creatures and scenarios. Penguin’s book appears to wander through Dr Seuss’s books, picking up a rhyme here and there to create “Dr Juice” who tells the whole story [of the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial] in rhyming verse and sketches as witty as Theodore Geisel’s best.

The Cat NOT in the Hat! included drawings that mirrored Dr Seuss’ signature design.

In the District Court for the Southern District of California, Seuss Enterprises sued Penguin Books for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and dilution. The preliminary injunction was issued in favour of Seuss Enterprises by the District Court.

Penguin filed for an appeal on the Ninth Circuit court and stated that The Cat NOT in the Hat! was fair use.

The Ninth Circuit court had to determine whether The Cat NOT in the Hat! was a protected parody under the fair use doctrine.

The court evaluated the four factors of fair use:

1. Purpose and Character;

2. Nature of the copyrighted work;

3. The amount/substantiality of the portion used;

4. Effect of use on potential market or value; and

Penguin Books claimed that their work was a parody, and therefore a form of social and literal critique that could be protected as a transformative work under the fair use doctrine.

The court cited the Campbell v Acuff-Rose case, which stated that a parody that uses a copyrighted work from another author must comment on that author’s work; it cannot merely use copyrighted material to gain publicity or avoid being artistic.

The key here is that the borrowed material must be part of the parody’s object. Without parodying what you borrow you can’t imitate the workstyle and call it a parody. So was the Cat NOT in the Hat a parody? The court decided that it was not.

While the book mimicked the Cat in the Hat’s design, it merely used Dr Seuss’s style to retell the story of the OJ trial, making no reference to The Cat in the Hat.

The Cat’s picture and the Cat’s Hat were found by the court to have been appropriated by Penguin Books. Penguin Books argued that the Cat’s antics and the OJ trial have similarities. Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, according to Penguin, were shocked by a “Cat” (O.J. Simpson) who violated moral and legal authority. Penguin Books believed that by evoking the world of The Cat in the Hat, they could comment on the combination of frivolity and moral seriousness that characterized society’s reaction to the Brown/Goldman murders, among other things. This defence was dismissed by the court.

The court dismissed the appeal, ruling that The Cat Not in the Hat! was not a parody and therefore infringed on Seuss’ copyright and trademark.

Satire v Parody

Both parody and satire use humour in their commentary and critique, but the main difference is the intent each serves, which is why parodies are more likely to be considered fair use than satires. Satire can be defined as “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or mockery to reveal and criticize people’s incompetence or vices, especially in the sense of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”

Although humour is used in both parody and satire to convey a message, the aim of a parody is to comment on or critique the work that is the focus of the parody. A parody, by definition, is a comedic commentary on a work that necessitates an imitation of the work. Satire, on the other hand, even though it employs a creative work as a medium for its message, provides commentary and critique on the environment as a whole, not just the particular creative work. As a result that is why parodies are protected under the fair use doctrine and not satires. The Cat Not in the Hat! was more satirical than parody hence Penguin Books lost their case.

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