Parody of Dr. Seuss Character Doesn’t Infringe Copyright

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By Anandashankar Mazumdar

A one-woman play about a grown-up Cindy Lou Who doesn’t infringe the rights of Dr. Seuss Enterprises LP in its work “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” a federal district court has ruled.

“Who’s Holiday!” by playwright Matthew Lombardo focuses on the difficult adult life of Cindy Lou, after a teenage pregnancy and marriage to the Grinch. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled Sept. 15 that it was a parody that didn’t infringe the company’s copyright ( Lombardo v. Dr. Seuss Enters., L.P. , S.D.N.Y., No. 16-9974, 9/15/17 ).

The ruling demonstrates how federal copyright law doesn’t protect intellectual property holders from seeing their works lampooned by others. The U.S. Supreme Court declared parodies to be fair uses under copyright law in a 1994 ruling over rap group 2 Live Crew’s recording of the song “Pretty Woman.”

In Lombardo’s play, Cindy Lou Who isn’t “not more than two,” as she was as a character in the Dr. Seuss story who briefly interrupted the Grinch’s robbery of Christmas decorations and gifts in the Dr. Seuss story. As Lombardo tells itIn Lombardo’s play, she is 45 years old and speaks in rhyming couplets—characteristic of the Dr. Seuss text—to describe the troubled years since that event.

Through its adult language and themes, the play “subverts the expectations of the Seussian genre, and lampoons the ‘Grinch’ by making Cindy-Lou’s naivete, Who-Ville’s endlessly-smiling, problem-free citizens, and Dr. Seuss’ rhyming innocence, all appear ridiculous,” the court said.

The play was supposed to premiere in November 2016 in New York, but the theater shut down the production after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Lombardo’s lawyer said.

Aping Seuss Style

Evoking the style of the original Grinch story is also necessary to the parody, the court said.

The court decided the matter without a trial, after finding that the fair use issue could be resolved by comparing the two works side-by-side.

Jordan Greenberger of J. Greenberger PLLC, Brooklyn, N.Y., told Bloomberg BNA that " a cloud of infringement hung over the play for a year” and the court’s ruling represented “a good day for copyright law and Mr Lombardo’s First Amendment rights.”

Dr. Seuss Enterprises didn’t immediately respond to a Bloomberg BNA request for comment.

Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein issued the court’s ruling. J. Greenberger PLLC represented Lombardo and Who’s Holiday LLC. DLA Piper US LLP represented Dr. Seuss Enterpreises LP.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anandashankar Mazumdar in Washington at AMazumdar@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mike Wilczek at mwilczek@bna.com

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