It may be lewd, profane and in poor taste, and it could tarnish your childhood memories of a beloved Dr. Seuss tale, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” But Matthew Lombardo’s theatrical parody, “Who’s Holiday!” — a dark and decidedly adult sequel of sorts to the Christmas classic — doesn’t violate the copyright of the original story, according to a judge presiding over a lawsuit that Mr. Lombardo brought against the Seuss estate.
The dispute began in 2016, when Mr. Lombardo, a playwright, was preparing to stage “Who’s Holiday!” — a 75-minute, one-woman play that features Cindy Lou Who, the adorable girl from the book who teaches the greedy Grinch the true meaning of Christmas. In Mr. Lombardo’s version, Cindy Lou Who is all grown up. She is now a hard-drinking, prescription-drug-abusing middle-aged woman who lives in a trailer park and served time in prison for killing her husband, the Grinch. She addresses the audience in profanity-laced rhyming couplets that evoke the rollicking rhymes of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. (According to a court filing, Cindy describes telling her parents that she is marrying the Grinch in the following way: “When I told my parents they weren’t pleased in the least / I mean, who wants their baby girl deflowered by a beast.”)
Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which oversees the author’s estate, complained that the play violated its copyright protections and wrote cease-and-desist letters. The Off Broadway production was canceled. But Mr. Lombardo fought back in court.
Last December, he filed a suit in Federal District Court in Manhattan, arguing that his play was clearly a parody, which is protected as fair use under the First Amendment. The Seuss estate countered that the play was derivative and “a blatant infringement.” Seuss Enterprises likened the play to an unauthorized sequel to J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” which a judge ruled did not qualify as fair use in 2009. “By plaintiffs’ logic, any unimaginative playwright could take well-known children’s characters, age them, use them as the butt of raunchy jokes, label it parody and commercialize that work,” the estate wrote in a court filing this summer. “This is not commentary or a ridicule on a work, it is a lazy way to get laughs and sell tickets.”
The federal judge overseeing the Grinch case, Alvin K. Hellerstein, disagreed. In an opinion filed on Sept. 15, he defended Mr. Lombardo’s right to produce a bawdy parody of the Grinch, and wrote that the characters and setting were so radically transformed that “there is virtually no possibility that consumers will go see the play in lieu of reading Grinch or watching an authorized derivative work.” Noting that Mr. Lombardo’s work includes descriptions of teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, murder and prison culture, he argued that there could be no mistaking “Who’s Holiday!” for a Seuss-branded production.
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