Dr. Seuss –- or, at least, the lawyers for his estate -- are at it again. The victim this time is Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which put articles on its web site and in its newspaper that portrayed Teamster President James Hoffa as the Grinch. TDU used an illustration of the Grinch, and used the distinctive font used in the Seuss classic to decry “Hoffa’s Holiday Give-away to Employers.”
Barbara Orr, a lawyer with DLA Piper who represents the Seuss estate, apparently thought that Teamster dissidents who patronize TDU’s web site and read its newspaper might not be bright enough to understand that TDU was satirizing Hoffa by reference to a common cultural icon, the Grinch. She sent a cease and desist letter claiming that truck drivers and others might think that the Seuss estate was endorsing TDU (or, might they think that Dr. Seuss was responsible for giving away workers’ contract rights?). So, she claimed trademark and copyright infringement, and threatened to sue for damages unless TDU promptly signed a letter “agreeing to [the] terms” set forth in her demand letter.
As usually happens in these situations, the intimidation tactic was effective, even though TDU's plainly non-commercial use for the purpose of commentary would have afforded a strong defense in any lawsuit. TDU apparently calculated that it didn’t have enough interest in fighting with Dr. Seuss to spend its meagre staff time and resources on a lawsuit, and it has removed the image from its web site. But society will be the poorer if citizens engaged in criticism of companies (or, in this case, companies and the leaders of their union bargaining partner) can’t refer to such common cultural icons as the Grinch as an embodiment of the sort of evil they seek to criticize.
This is not the first time that Dr. Seuss has abused intellectual property claims to suppress free speech. For example, a year ago the blogosphere was buzzing over a threat by the Seuss estate against a musician who recorded “Green Eggs and Ham” in a voice resembling Bob Dylan (the musician could not afford to fight and backed down, of course), or its successful lawsuit against the publisher or a satirical book, The Cat NOT in a Hat, which used a Dr. Seuss theme to make fun of O.J Simpson trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
Bullies need to be put in their place. Barbara Orr is invited to respond.