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Satire or Parody? Dr.Seuss Enterprises v. Penguin Books USA

December 16th, 2009 · 20 Comments

The book “The Cat NOT in th Hat! A Parody by Dr. Juice” was indicted as copyright infringement for infringing the original work, “The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss”. The infringing work mimicked the original author’s style and gave a poetic rendition of facts of the O.J Simpson murder case. The defendant claimed that it was a parody, and that it was of transformative nature. The Ninth Circuit court judge O’Scannlain, however, found the defendant liable for infringement for merely satirizing the O.J Simpson case itself and not the original book, and for “borrowing” the image of the distinctive red and white striped stove-pipe hat.  The result of this case is significant as it clarifies the difference between satire and parody and the extent to which a derivative work has to be transformative in order to be considered as fair use.  Bearing in mind the four guidelines charted by the federal law that I outlined in the first post, I am going to explore how the judge reached the decision and whether this case should be resolved in this way.

Theodore Geisel, under the pseudonym of Dr. Seuss, created this “the Cat in the Hat” children’s book series. He aimed to enhance elementary school literacy by  using rhymed lines and simple words, and his books have been popular since then. The book is also mainly remembered by its main character: the tall, mischievous cat that wears a tall, red and white striped hat and a bow tie, and carries an umbrella. Part of the dispute is around the “borrowing” of this classic image. Let’s compare the covers of the two books:

the original workThe disputed work

On the over of the disputed work, O.J Simpson is put into the tall, striped hat. Instead of wearing a bow tie, however, he is wearing a long tie; instead of carrying an innocent umbrella, he is holding a pair of blood-dripping gloves. The word “NOT” is all capital letters and bolded, signaling its distinction from the original work. The author also chose a pseudonym that rhymes with “Seuss” in honor of the book’s rhymed poetic lines, indicating that it has “juicy” content. So let us take a look at its content to see if it’s really a “parody” as the author claims, or a satire as the court determined. The definition of “transformative use”, which is one of the four guidelines, is at the center of the whole dispute.

The disputed work recounts the trial from O.J Simpson’s perspective: “A man this famous/Never hires/Lawyers like/Jacoby Meyers/When you’re accused of a killing scheme/You need to build a real Dream Team” and “One knife?/Two knife?/Red knife/Dead wife.” The acceptable tranformative uses include but not limited to political commentaries, critical reviews or parody that ridicule the original author or work. Book reviews can use passages from the original work, as it gives a critical evaluation of the book and the author, thus stimulating intellectual exchange. Political commentaries enhance freedom of speech, as people don’t need to worry about being sued for copyright infringement while commenting on politicians’ work. All of these have one thing in common: they express their own opinions on the original work or the  author. Yet in this “the Cat Not in the Hat” uses Dr.Seuss’s style, which is famous for its rhymed and easy-to-understand lines, to ridicule O.J Simpson. “Dr.Juice” satirizes his book’s main character instead of the original work or author. So the “parody” becomes mimicking the other’s style to ridicule someone who is unrelated to the original work. This is not parody. This is satire.

The second most important factor that matters here is whether it harms the original work’s potential market. Dr. Seuss’s work have occupied a large market share ever since they first greeted the market. As we have seen before, the disputed work uses the symbolic and distinctive tall,  striped hat on the cover, and assumes the pseudonym “Dr. Juice” that rhymes with “Dr. Seuss”. Most importantly, it copies the original author’s style. By doing these, it gives the readers an illusion that the two books are similar and that the Dr. Seuss Enterprises have authorized that author to do so. Although I doubt that the book can have big impact on the original work’ market, since the book is in fact interesting and does have some entertainment values, it will usurp some readership away from the firm base of the original work.

And of course, Dr. Juice got the book published. It’s for commercial use.

In summary, I agree and satisfy with the court’s decision that “the Cat NOT in the Hat” infringes copyright. This case gives us a clear example of what constitutes “fair use” and of the difference between a parody and a satire. It warns people about the content they are ridiculing: it’s okay to satirize the original work or author, but merely ridiculing other unrelated stuff is a big no-no. Furthermore, it deters potential authors who want to use others’ styles but still want to squeeze into the “transformative use” slot.

Dr. Juice got to taste the “juice” of his own work.

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20 responses so far ↓

  • Darja // Dec 20th 2009 at 10:11 am

    very interesting!! I didn’t know the legal difference before..

  • Watch Eureka Online // Jan 7th 2010 at 11:10 pm

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  • Bert K // Feb 3rd 2010 at 9:22 pm

    One small addition: the name of the mock author, Dr. Juice, is itself a reference to O.J. Simpson, as Juice was his nickname!

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