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December 6, 2004


Stripburger Comics Held: Miniburgers Freed, Parodies Not; CBLDF Challenges; Newsarama Holds Story

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I can't get the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund web site to load this morning. So please forgive me for the full publication of the following press release following this paragraph. Basically, the U.S. custom department has seized a few publications by the Eastern European publisher Stripburger that contain obvious parodies, and is holding them by saying they are pirating the works they use as the language of their parody. It sounds pretty cut and dry to me -- Board President Chris Staros is right to call it a potentially awful precedent -- and I hope for a speedy, positive outcome.

In the meantime you should visit Stripburger's site, consider buying their comics from Top Shelf (I remember liking Stripburek), and go watch Peter Kuper's animated version of "Richie Bush," one of the works challenged.

I do have some serious questions about the story which follow the press release, so please bear with me.

BEGIN PRESS RELEASE
On October 27, U.S. Customs sent a letter to Top Shelf Productions notifying them that copies of the anthology Stripburger had been seized, charging that the stories "Richie Bush" by Peter Kuper and "Moj Stub" (translated, "My Pole") by Bojan Redzic constituted "clearly piratical copies" of registered and recorded copyrights. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has retained counsel to challenge these seizures.

"Richie Bush," appearing in Stripburger (Vol. 12) #37, is a four-page parody of Richie Rich that also satirizes the Bush Administration by superimposing the personalities of the President's cabinet on the characters from the comic. "My Pole," appearing in Stripburger (Vol. 3) # 4-5, which was published in 1994, is an eight-page ecology parable in Slovenian that makes visual homage to Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Woodstock in three panels. Customs seized five copies of the issue with the Peanuts reference and fourteen copies of the issue containing "Richie Bush." The stories were both published in the middle of their respective issues and no graphics from either story appeared on the covers.

Top Shelf is the American agent for Stripburger, an Eastern European comics publisher that releases anthologies of comics from cartoonists around the globe. The comics that were seized were sent along as an extra in a shipment of The Miniburger Dirty Dozen, a boxed set of mini comics that Top Shelf imported to offer in the Direct Market and at conventions. Top Shelf did not order the seized issues of the anthology.

Upon investigating the shipment, Customs released the copies of Miniburger, but held the issues of Stripburger, giving Top Shelf thirty days to either forfeit the shipment, request administrative relief, or initiate court action.

At the urging of Stripburger, Top Shelf and CBLDF President Chris Staros brought the case to the attention of the Fund as a potential news story. CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein felt the matter warranted serious legal attention, so it was sent to Burton Joseph, the Fund's legal counsel, whose opinion was that Customs was unlawfully holding First Amendment protected speech. The option of pursuing court action on First Amendment grounds was then taken to the CBLDF Board of Directors, which unanimously voted 8-0 to take up the case; Chris Staros recused himself from the vote.

On November 24, the Fund retained counsel in Charleston, SC who hand-delivered a letter to Customs stating that the comics are protected under existing First Amendment case law and should be either immediately released or that court action should be initiated.

"In this case, it looks like Customs is overreaching its authority," Staros says. "The comics in question are clearly within the acceptable bounds of parody, and there is absolutely no likelihood that consumers would confuse these works with the subjects that they are parodying."

Brownstein stated, "The stories that were seized are short segments within larger anthologies that in no way represented the content as anything other than what it is. The charge that these are piratical copies of existing copyrights is not only wrong-headed, but the seizure amounts to an unlawful prior restraint of protected speech. It is our hope that Customs will recognize that they have acted in error in seizing these stories and release them immediately. If not, we are prepared to go to court to protect the First Amendment rights that are endangered by this misguided action."

END PRESS RELEASE

Questions Regarding Story

I am constrained from writing news -- as opposed to blogging it, and there really is a difference -- by prior professional commitments, so I can't flesh this story out further by making a few needed phone calls.

But I can make commentary, and some things in the story struck me as worth commenting upon. Perhaps someone else can answer a few questions I have in writing their articles, or one of the principals can write me directly. I will happily plug such an article; any answers I will insert below and give them their own space.
1. Why did it take so long to get this matter released to the press? Did it really take five weeks or more to get this voted on?

2. Why would the head of the CBLDF not immediately see this as a First Amendment issue the way it seems the Executive Director and legal counsel did?

3. Since Chris Staros in Newsarama said he recused himself from the vote since he brought it to the board's attention, does that mean he would not recuse himself from a vote for being in a publishing relationship with someone?

4. Speaking of that Newsarama article, it's dated 11:30 AM but it showed up on my screen at approximately 5 AM Mountain time, and might have been there earlier. I didn't get the press release until late Sunday night. Newsarama's article includes copious quotes from Chris Staros. So tell me:
a. Did Staros happen to stay up really late to work with Newsarama? If so, will he extend late Sunday night access to all reporters?

b. Did Newsarama receive preferential treatment by having the story released to them earlier?

c. If Newsarama got the story themselves a bit earlier, then did they hold it for some reason at someone's request, or did they just happen to get it early enough and process it at a time so theirs came out a few hours earlier?


******
UPDATE
******


The following is also published as a stand-alone document in the letters section, as promised.

Charles Brownstein
Executive Director
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund


Hi Tom,

Here are our answers to the questions you blogged this morning. Feel free to e-mail me directly if you have anything else.

1. Why did it take so long to get this matter released to the press? Did it really take five weeks or more to get this voted on?

On the advice of counsel we held the story until it was clear that the request had enough time to start moving through the system. We had to submit our challenge on November 24, which is right before the government shut down for Thanksgiving. We wanted to ensure that Customs had enough time to start processing our
request before making an announcement. It would have been counter-productive to the goal of getting the books released to blindside Customs with a news article before they had the chance to properly receive our letter requesting legal action.

2. Why would the head of the CBLDF not immediately see this as a First Amendment issue the way it seems the Executive Director and legal counsel did?

No one saw the actual materials until late November because after the notice of seizure was received by Top Shelf in early November we had to get copies of the actual books sent over to form a legal opinion. Functionally, Chris and I first saw the material at the same time, he on November 19, me and Burt on November 22. It was only upon seeing the material in question that a First Amendment legal opinion could be formed.

3. Since Chris Staros in Newsarama said he recused himself from the vote since he brought it to the board's attention, does that mean he would not recuse himself from a vote for being in a publishing relationship with someone?

Chris obviously supported the issue, but felt that it wouldn't be prudent to vote on the matter since he brought the case to the attention of the board. This is standard procedure in organizations where a "conflict of interest" presents itself. As for future voting scenarios, each one would have to be handled on its own merits.

4. Speaking of that Newsarama article, it's dated 11:30 AM but it showed up on my screen at approximately 5 AM Mountain time, and might have been there earlier. I didn't get the press release until late Sunday night. Newsarama's article includes copious quotes from Chris Staros. So tell me:

Newsarama called me about a week ago and had somehow gotten wind of the story. I confirmed that it was true, but that we weren't ready to release it because we wanted Customs to have a full working week to deal with our letter. So in exchange for access to exclusive quotes from me and Chris would they hold the story until we were ready to release it on Monday? They agreed.

But for the record, both Chris and I work long hours and have frequently made ourselves available to reporters at odd hours and on weekends.

*****

Tom Spurgeon Breaks In: Although I had multiple follow-up questions, to stick with my mandate I kept my follow-up questions to clarifications. That exchange went as follows.

*****

Spurgeon: Wasn't the content of Richie Bush already widely known and available?

Brownstein: Yes. The story had appeared in other places, including World War 3 Illustrated and a mini-comic Peter had produced. But we didn't know what specific presentation of Richie Bush was used and we didn't know what the other story was at all. We're not in the business of jumping to conclusions before we have all the facts in, and it
wasn't prudent to speak publicly about the matter until we had all the facts.

Spurgeon: Isn't controlling access to board members based on how it fits in with your administrative needs kind of anti-First Amendment?

Brownstein: I take issue with the word control. Anyone is welcome to call any board member at any time and question them on any CBLDF issue. When Newsarama asked me to confirm what they had heard, I asked them to hold the story because we didn't want to jeopardize the case. Because they agreed, we offered them added depth because they honored our request. This happens all the time in journalism.

*****

Tom Spurgeon One Last Time: Although I suspect there may still be news to report on here, this concludes my commentary until such reporting is done elsewhere that brings it back into my purview.
 
posted 4:11 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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