Manatees Battle It Out in Copyright Dispute

JOOTB_FinalA New York based federal court recently had to resolve a copyright dispute between the animated manatee characters "Jukebox Manatee" and "Loafy."  Spoiler alert.  Loafy came out on top.

While a student at the Pratt Institute, Daniel Kassel created a YouTube channel called "Jukebox Manatee" which showcased a cartoon he'd created featuring "Jukebox Manatee."  Ultimately, Kassel created a four-minute short film entitled "Happily Everglades After."  In Kassel's view, Happily contained four key elements – a talking manatee with a laid back attitude, who has a human girlfriend and who "suffers misfortunes as a commentary on life and its travails with irony and black humor."

Comedy Central later produced an animated series called "Loafy" which also features a talking manatee.  Two of Kassel's Pratt classmates wound up working at Comedy Central, one of whom worked on "Loafy."  Kassel filed his claim against Comedy Central, alleging that it "Loafy" infringed his copyright.  In dismissing the complaint, the court found that many of the "key features" weren't subject to copyright protection.  It also ruled that the two works weren't sufficiently similar to one another to constitute infringement.

Copyright protection has its limitations.  First, facts and ideas are not protected by copyright."  Second, copyright does not protect scenes a faire, which are "sequences of events which necessarily follow from a common theme" and "incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic."  Third, "generic and generalized character traits such as race, gender, and hair color are not protectible."  For this reason, the court was unpersuaded that the concept of a talking animal who offers life commentary was protectible.  It cited numerous examples – including, Family Guy (talking dog), Rick and Morty (talking cat), BoJack Horseman (talking horse) and Guardians of the Galaxy (talking raccoon) – to illustrate its point.  Readers who are my age are no doubt wondering why the court didn't cite to Mr. Ed, but that is beside the point.  As the court noted, "[d]espite his protestations, Plaintiff's four-minute cartoon short does not entitle him to exclusive copyright protection over all works with a talking manatee."

The court also concluded that the two works were too distinct to justify an infringement finding.  As the court noted, the main characters in both works are manatees.  However, in Defendant's work, Loafy is a foul-mouthed and crude drug dealer who converses with human characters and uses human technology.  Loafy has a human girlfriend named Becca and a manatee son named Beef.  In Kassel's work, Jukebox Manatee does not use crude language, does not appear to have an occupation, does not talk with human characters, and does not use human technology.  Jukebox Manatee converses only with one character, a bird with apparent psychological issues caused by a traumatic event.  Jukebox Manatee slaps his belly while speaking and is depicted beatboxing.  Loafy does not regularly slap his belly while speaking, and never while beatboxing music is playing; rather, he makes various anthropomorphic gestures with his manatee-arms.

All in all, it takes more than passing similarity to establish infringement.  Score a victory for the degenerate manatee.

About The Author

Jack Greiner | Faruki Partner