Last week, Judge Hellerstein ruled that a parody of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” constituted fair use and did not infringe on the defendant’s copyright or related trademarks. The plaintiff, New York playwright Matthew Lombardo, brought the suit against Dr. Seuss Enterprises over his “one actress 75-minute comedic play featuring a rather down-and-out 45 year-old version of Cindy-Lou Who.” The plaintiff argued that the play was parody and thus fair use, and Judge Hellerstein agreed:
The key question I must therefore resolve, is whether the Play comments on Grinch by imitating and ridiculing its characteristic style for comic effect, or, as defendant contends, merely exploits the characters, style and themes of Grinch in order “to avoid the drudgery in working up something fresh.” Defendant argues that the Play “does not poke fun of the Seussian rhyming style,” but instead usurps that style in order to sell a commercial work. Nor, according to defendant, does the Play comment on or ridicule the characters and themes of Grinch; it merely “uses Grinch, Cindy-Lou, the Grinch character, and the dog Max as building blocks for a sequential work, featuring those same characters in the Seuss-created settings of Mount Crumpit and Who-Ville.”
Defendant’s assessment misses the mark. 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. 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.