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  • WisBar News
    June
    08
    2012

    Federal Appeals Court Sides With South Park Producers in Copyright Case

    Joe Forward
    Legal Writer

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    June 8, 2012 – South Park, a popular and highly satirical cartoon for adults, was the subject of a recent opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which decided it was okay for the makers of South Park to parody a copyrighted video in one of its episodes.

    Federal Appeals Court Sides With South Park Producers in Copyright Case

    By org jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Legal Writer, State Bar of Wisconsin

    Federal Appeals Court Sides With 
<em>South Park</em> 
Producers in Copyright Case June 8, 2012 – South Park, a popular and highly satirical cartoon for adults, was the subject of a recent opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which decided it was okay for the makers of South Park to parody a copyrighted video in one of its episodes.

    Milwaukee-based Brownmark Films LLC holds a copyright on the original version of a video entitled, “What What (In the Butt),” which features an adult male singing and dancing in tight pants, according to the federal appeals court in Brownmark Films LLC v. Comedy Partners, et al., No. 11-2620, (June 7, 2012).

    In a South Park episode called “Canada Goes on Strike,” elementary school boy characters create a video of the same name (WWITB), with similar features, to earn “internet money” that will buy off striking Canadians.

    Brownmark Films filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, alleging a violation of the Copyright Act of 1976.

    South Park Digital Studios (SPDS) asserted a “fair use” defense. The fair use doctrine allows the use of copyrighted material without permission in limited circumstances, including reproduction for criticism and commentary. See 17 U.S.C. §107.

    District court Judge J.P. Stadtmueller granted SPDS’s motion to dismiss based on fair use, noting that its parody was meant to “lampoon the recent craze in our society of watching video clips on the internet … of rather low sophistication and quality.”

    Brownmark appealed, arguing that courts are not allowed to grant motions to dismiss based on affirmative defenses before discovery. But the three-judge appeals court panel affirmed, electing to treat SPDS’s motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment.

    “Despite Brownmark’s assertions to the contrary, the only two pieces of evidence needed to decide the question of fair use in this case are the original version of WWITB and the episode at issue,” wrote Judge Richard Cudahy for the panel.

    The district court was right to rely solely on those two works, the appeals panel explained, because the claim was limited to the production and distribution of a single South Park episode.

    The court addressed, but did not decide, whether the incorporation-by-reference doctrine applies to video. That doctrine allows defendants to submit documents mentioned in a complaint when filing a motion to dismiss, even though they are outside the pleadings.

    SPDS had relied on the doctrine when filing its motion to dismiss, fearing a motion for summary judgment would invite an expensive discovery request.

    “[N]o court of appeals has ruled that the content of television programs and similar works may be incorporated by reference,” wrote Judge Cudahy wrote. “And we think it makes eminently good sense to extend the doctrine to cover such works, especially in light of technological changes that have occasioned widespread production of audio-visual works.”

    However, the panel did not rule on that issue because the parties did not brief it. “[W]e reserve the resolution of the question for a later date,” Judge Cudahy wrote.

    The panel upheld SPDS’s defense as an “obvious case of fair use,” and also ruled that Brownmark waived the fair use argument when it opted to argue on civil procedure grounds.

    “When the two works in this case are viewed side-by-side, the South Park episode is clearly a parody of the original WWITB video, providing commentary on the ridiculousness of the original video and the viral nature of certain YouTube videos,” Judge Cudahy noted. “We agree with the district court’s well-reasoned and delightful opinion.”