The Case: The Theft Of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
In June of 2018 the plaintiff (Viacom) filed motions for default judgment in an ongoing case and it was granted by the court. Viacom Int’l Inc. v. Mark Anthony Baca & Guardian Anti-Bullying Campaign, Inc was conceived as a way to prevent the defendants from continuing to sell merchandise and perform a live action show based on the same characters, for which they had not obtained the rights.
Viacom is the company that owns the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and licenses merchandise. It never sold these rights to the companies that stole them. The defendants are primarily responsible for the production of Ninja Turtles Live Action Parody, but as Viacom argued in court, the production in no way resembles traditional parody, nor does satirical content (if it was indeed satirical) provide the company with the legal option to sell related merchandise. There is no social commentary or criticisms.
The courtroom brief’s “admitted and undisputed facts” acknowledge that “Defendants knowingly, willfully, and confusingly made use of Viacom’s well-established and famous trademarks and copyrights in the Ninja Turtles, with the intent to trade in on the goodwill associated with Viacom’s copyrights and trademarks.”
The trademarks originally found fame in New Mexico.
The brief also describes that the defendants ignored cease and desist orders, and requests, to remove content over several years.
We’ve covered similar lawsuits in the past, because companies have a penchant for suing artistic creations that seemingly infringe on their own. But it’s a delicate topic, because parody — that is, an exaggerated imitation for humorous effect or one that provides a satirical commentary on the content itself — is a protected form of art. Parody is easy to spot. For example, the TV show Family Guy imitates people, places, situations, and other TV shows all the time. Another common example is South Park. Everyone wonders how the creators of these shows can possibly get away with it or if they have permission from people who they tease. They don’t.
If an artist imitates another artist’s work and produces something very similar, though, and fails to comment on the original art or even make fun of it to comedic effect, is it parody? The answer is no. And that’s when something starts to be defined by theft. Stealing will result in a lawsuit.
Parodies aren’t always protected, depending on the circumstances or message conveyed. For example, if they parody is discriminatory in nature, it ceases to convey meaningful commentary and the original owners can still sue.
Still parody isn’t always parody if the original work is stolen outright. You can’t always steal the exact characters or content. A successful parody will take the content and transform it in some way.
Another reason that parody is illegal is if it erodes the market for the original work. This usually doesn’t have any effect on a lawsuit, because if the parody itself becomes “bigger” or more popular, then people are far more likely to go find out where the parody came from — and buy the original so they know more about it.