A political satire entitled Richie Bush by cartoonist Peter Kuper, of Mad Magazine and 'Spy vs. Spy' fame, is one of two stories from the Eastern European comic anthology Stripburger that has caused several books from a recent shipment to the port of Charleston to be seized by U.S. Customs. The stated reason: Richie Bush and a short ecological/industrialization parable titled Moj Stub (My Pole) by Serbian cartoonist Bojan Redzic are "clearly piratical copies" of registered copyrights. The Redzic story has three panels in which characters from "Peanuts" are portrayed to make a political point.
"My Richie Bush comic is a clear case of parody both of the Harvey comics characters and the current administration," says artist Peter Kuper, adding that his first professional job was as an inker on Richie Rich, back in 1978. "I have never earned a dime from this parody and in fact had a number of out-of-pocket expenses. The purpose of this parody was to cast a light on the Bush administration's policies and have a hearty laugh along the way. Lord knows, in times like these we could all use a good laugh."
Charleston attorney Edward Fenno, who specializes in media and intellectual property law, provided some insight into the matters likely to weigh in as the case develops. "The 'fair use' defense, which generally encompasses free speech issues in copyright infringement cases, provides a strong protection for parodies," says Fenno, who cites a 2003 case brought before California's federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in which Mattel's Barbie doll was photographed by Tom Forsythe in, well, un-Barbie-like poses and situations. In that case, known as the Food Chain Barbie case due to Barbie's, er, "interaction" with various foods and appliances in the photos, the use of the Barbie dolls was seen as parody and was upheld as non-infringing fair use. "Parody is regarded as a form of social and literary criticism," the appeals judge noted.
"On the other hand," says Fenno, "to be a protected against a copyright infringement claim, the author of a parody should at least loosely target the original (in this instance the Richie Rich comics) not just provide commentary on some other social issue by using the style and creativity of the original." In a 1997 case, in which the O.J. Simpson trial was mocked in a book entitled The Cat NOT in the Hat, styled along the lines of Dr. Seuss, a federal appeals court found an insufficient level of parody to lend protection under fair use. The court held that the authors of The Cat NOT in the Hat merely used Dr. Seuss' style and the title 'to get attention,' but the authors failed to 'hold Dr. Seuss' style up to ridicule."
The Dr. Seuss case shows that satire, in which the copyrighted work is merely a vehicle to poke fun at another target, "receives less protection against copyright claims than parody," says Fenno. "Satire can stand on its own two feet and so requires more justification for the act of borrowing" from the original copyrighted work, according to Judge O'Scannlain in his Dr. Seuss court opinion. Forsythe's Food Chain Barbie photos were protected because they were ruled to not only critique objectification of women, but also to critique the Barbie doll as a propagator of that objectification.
(This is based on an article by Jason A. Zwiker, "Parody Police: U.S. Customs seizes a comic book shipment in Charleston, citing piracy," published in the Charleston City Paper)
Click here to see Peter Kuper's work.