U.S. Government Seizes Parody Comics At Customs

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 Redžic, 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 Serbian 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.”
See the incriminated comic by Peter Kuper here


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