Fair use allows schools, media companies, and news organizations to use copyright-protected materials without paying for the rights in order to further education and freedom of expression. But when can fair use be used to justify “borrowing” or utilizing unlicensed copyright-protected works for other purposes? The case of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. v. ComicMix, LLC is a lesson in fair use in a decision handed down in March of 2019.

First, what is fair use? Fair use is a defense that is only invoked when a party is sued for copyright infringement. It is not a rule that justifies copyright infringement, though it is frequently invoked incorrectly by those who do not understand how fair use is applied. The principle of fair use is analyzed using four factors to determine if a party can legally use materials that are someone else’s intellectual property without licensing them. For example, using a clip of a movie in a documentary about that type of movie to make a point of using a copyrighted piece of artwork for educational purposes is generally considered legal and permissible under the principles of fair use.

In this case, ComicMix, LLC (“ComicMix”) began a campaign on Kickstarter in order to print and sell a “mashup” of various Dr. Seuss works and Star Trek characters titled “Oh, The Places You’ll Boldly Go!” Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. (“Dr. Seuss”), who owns all of the rights to the Dr. Seuss stories and artwork, brought suit against ComicMix for violation of their trademark, unfair competition, and copyright infringement. The court ruled that the use failed to qualify as a parody, as argued by ComicMix, which would have protected it under fair use. However, the court did analyze the use of the Dr. Seuss elements in the work to determine whether the use was “transformative” enough to qualify for fair use protection. For use of a copyrighted work to be considered transformative, the user has to have changed the purpose and character of the original work enough for it to no longer qualify as infringing on the original.

The court decided that the four fair use factors weighed in the defendant’s favor because the plaintiff had not met its burden to establish market harm by a preponderance of the evidence, which is a burden placed on the plaintiff when the work is transformative to show that the work is not transformative enough for the use not to affect the marketability of the original work. Therefore, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims for trademark infringement and unfair competition.

If you want to learn more about fair use, wish to have your content reviewed to make sure it is fair use, or you feel your copyright-protected material has been used in violation of your copyright, contact our firm today.