Introduced as comic book characters in 1984, the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, named for Italian Renaissance artists and trained by their sensei rat Splinter, have made more than $1 billion through six feature films, four cartoon series, toys and more than two dozen video games. Viacom acquired the rights to the franchise through its Nickelodeon subsidiary in 2009.
It sued Mark Anthony Baca and his Guardian Anti-Bullying Campaign on Friday, claiming Baca has repeatedly promised to stop violating copyright in his “Ninja Turtles Live Action Parody” stage shows, but he continues in “flagrant, knowing willful” violation of its intellectual property.
Baca presents anti-bullying shows at elementary schools and to community groups across the Southwest. His Guardian Campaign is an Oklahoma nonprofit based in New Mexico.
Viacom says it demanded that Baca cease and desist violating copyright in August 2015, in November 2016, and again in January 2017.
After these repeated demands, Viacom says, Baca promised to stop infringing copyright in January 2017 — but it was a lie. “In January 2018, Viacom contacted defendants once again, and defendants once again acknowledged their wrongdoing and agreed to cease their infringement,” the complaint states.
“Nevertheless, the very next day, defendants performed the infringing show and continue to perform the show to this day.”
In one show, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles defeat their arch nemesis Shredder, whereupon Master Splinter declares the turtles ready to take on bullies.
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.
Baca and Guardian call the show a parody, but Viacom calls it a straight ripoff.
“The show is not a parody,” it says 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.”
Represented by Jeremy Harrison with Modrall, Sperling, Roehl, Harris & Sisk, Viacom says its attorney “finally reached Mr. Baca by telephone on January 17, 2018. Mr. Baca acknowledged his infringement and agreed to cease his infringing conduct and cancel upcoming shows,” the complaint states.
Then Baca sent an email saying he’d stop violating copyright if he could complete his scheduled performances. Not good enough, Viacom says. Its attorney spoke with him again on Jan. 18, and told him the infringement “must cease immediately.”
Baca agreed, Viacom says — then did it again that very night, and again three days later. And he’s still marketing the show, through at least April 5, in four states across the country, for $10 to $12 a seat, or $25 for a ticket to “meet and greet” the turtles. He even sells Ninja Turtles merchandise at the shows, “further suggesting an affiliation with Viacom.”
Enough is enough, Viacom says. It seeks an injunction and punitive damages for copyright and trademark infringement and dilution and unfair trade, plus attorney’s fees and costs of suit.
Neither party could be reached for comment by telephone Monday.