On March 12, a U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California released an opinion that discusses at length the concept of fair use of a copyrighted work. We have previously written about fair use — a legal doctrine that allows limited uses of copyrighted works without permission in narrow categories.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. v. ComicMix LLC concerns a dispute between the owners of Dr. Seuss’ copyrights and the creators of a book that combines elements of the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” (a popular graduation gift, referred to as “Go!” by the court) and themes from the television show “Star Trek.” The controversy centers on the resulting book: “Oh, the Places You’ll Boldly Go! (called “Boldly!” by the court), which plaintiffs allege infringes on their copyrights in Dr. Seuss’ works.

Fair use analysis

The judge held that “Boldly!” is a transformative work and granted summary judgment ComicMix after analyzing the four fair use factors:

  • Purpose and character of use: Does the new work transform the original by adding new creative elements or new meaning, and to what extent was the new work intended for commercial profit? The court reasoned that although ComicMix borrowed liberally from the text and pictures of “Go!”, it did not “copy verbatim.” Instead, it “always adapted or transformed” the elements of “Go!” The new work has a different audience and is “highly transformative,” weighing in favor of a fair-use finding for defendants.
  • Nature of copyrighted use: The nature of the original use of a highly creative work is wide publication and distribution in the market, which “slightly favors” the copyright owners.
  • Substantiality and amount of portion of original work used: The court said that while the defendants took “discrete elements” of the original work, the elements were “imbued with a different character” and ComicMix did not take more than was necessary to create the mashup.
  • Effect on market of new use: This factor looks at the extent that the second work hurts the market for sale of the original work. The judge wrote that the likelihood of harm to the original work’s market is “hypothetical.” Considering the transformative nature of “Boldly!”, it is not likely to interfere with the market of the original work, including opportunity for licensing or sale. Since the plaintiffs did not show evidence of substantial market harm, the court held that this factor “favors neither party.”

Weighing these factors in light of the goals of copyright law, the court concluded that the defendants succeeded on their motion for summary judgment on the issue of fair use.

According to Reuters, Dr. Seuss Enterprises has indicated that it might appeal this decision.