Off-Broadway ‘Grinch’ Parody Defeats Copyright Claims

MANHATTAN (CN) – Leaving coal in the stocking of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, a federal judge found no copyright infringement in a ribald off-Broadway satirist’s take on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Matthew Lombardo and his company brought the underlying complaint in Manhattan last year after his play “Who’s Holiday” triggered cease-and-desist letters from the Seuss camp.

Rejecting infringement allegations, Lombardo argued that the fair-use doctrine protects his transformative parody.

A 75-minute, one-woman play that opened at the New World Stages last year, “Who’s Holiday” finds the Seuss character Cindy-Lou Who four decades after she let the Grinch make off with her family’s Christmas tree in the 1957 children’s tale. Recently paroled and living in a trailer, middle-aged Cindy-Lou Who has traded roast beast for bong rips of “Who-hash.”

“Dr. Seuss this is not,” Lombardo’s complaint assured.

Though Seuss Enterprises cried exploitation, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein agreed Friday that the play’s imitation of Seussian rhyming couplets and characters is intended for comic effect.

“The play recontextualizes Grinch’s easily recognizable plot and rhyming style by placing Cindy-Lou Who – a symbol of childhood innocence and naivete – in outlandish, profanity-laden, adult-themed scenarios involving topics such as poverty, teen-age pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, prison culture, and murder,” the 24-page ruling states. “In so doing, 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.”

Granting the playwright judgment on the pleadings, Hellerstein rejected Dr. Seuss Enterprise’s request for discovery as unnecessary to resolve the fair-use issue.

There is overlap between Seuss’ characters, setting, plot and style, Hellerstein found, but he agreed with the playwright that the “distorted imitation” of Lombardo’s play is mocking.

Hellerstein contrasted the “utopic depiction of Who-Ville” in Seuss’ work, where residents have an “indomitably optimistic spirit,” against Lombardo’s rendering.

In the latter, according to the ruling, “Who-Ville is now a place where young women are impregnated by green beasts, families struggle to put food on the table, paparazzi run rabid, and citizens get high on “Who hash” to escape the problem of daily life.”

The ruling in favor of Lombardo also dismisses Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ counterclaims of unfair competition and trademark dilution.

Though it had been set for a nine-week run beginning last November, the threats from Dr. Seuss Enterprises led the theater owner, Shubert Organization, to cancel production.

In his lawsuit, Lombardo estimated that the cancellation ordeal caused $55,861.92 worth of damage, including legal counsel, marketing, and a $10,000 author fee and advance for himself.

Following Judge Hellerstein’s decision, Lombardo took to his personal Facebook page to applaud the ruling in rhyming couplet.

And so those mean lawyers who represent Seuss
Learned a lesson today about laws of fair use.
Though they tried to bully with their cease and desists
The judge didn’t like that and slapped all their wrists.
So with this new ruling, artists shout out with glee
Cause not even Dr. Seuss can stop parody!
#freecindylou?”

Attorneys for Dr. Seuss Enterprises LP at the Washington, D.C., firm DLA Piper have not returned requests for comment.

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