LAS CRUCES, N.M. (CN) – A nonprofit anti-bullying campaign must stop using the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in its stage shows, a federal judge recently ruled.
Introduced as comic book characters in 1984, the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, named for Italian Renaissance artists and trained by the rat Splinter, have raked in more than $1 billion through six feature films, four cartoon series, more than two dozen video games, and numerous toy lines. Viacom acquired the rights to the franchise through its Nickelodeon subsidiary in 2009.
Viacom sued New Mexico-based Mark Anthony Baca and his Guardian Anti-Bullying Campaign in February of this year, claiming Baca has repeatedly promised to stop violating copyright in his “Ninja Turtles Live Action Parody” stage shows – but he hasn’t done so.
Baca presents his anti-bullying shows at elementary schools and for community groups across the Southwest. His Guardian Campaign is an Oklahoma nonprofit based in New Mexico.
“The undisputed record shows the Ninja Turtle marks are distinctive, famous, of high quality, and that Defendants’ Show uses marks so similar to Viacom’s famous mark as to impair the distinctiveness of the famous mark and to harm the reputation of the famous mark by linking it to a Show of inferior quality,” U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera wrote in a 14-page order.
Amateur videos of Guardian shows feature the reptilian heroes spin-kicking, shouting their signature “Cowabunga!” and dancing to Michael Jackson songs while delivering their anti-bullying message. In one show, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles defeat their arch-nemesis Shredder, whereupon Master Splinter declares the turtles ready to take on bullies.
Baca and Guardian call the show a parody – which would protect it under fair-use laws. But Viacom says it’s a straight knockoff.
“The show is not a parody,” the company said in its 24-page complaint. “The show provides no meaningful commentary upon, or criticism of, the Ninja Turtles. Additionally, the Ninja Turtles characters are portrayed without any irony or self-awareness that would suggest a parodic element to the show.”
Since Viacom filed its complaint, Baca and Guardian have not responded to court motions and filings. Viacom published its complaints in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, emailed Baca’s last known address and sent documents to Baca’s mother, among others, in an attempt to reach the defendants.
Baca still didn’t respond, so on Thursday Herrera granted Viacom’s request to permanently bar Guardian and Baca from using the Ninja Turtles in their performances.
Herrera didn’t order any punitive damages against Baca or Guardian, but with the defendants absent from the court proceedings, the Cowabunga show must not go on.