Peanuts pulled into politics
The son of Peanuts’ creator Charles M. Schulz is questioning whether Republican campaign mailers lampooning a Democratic opponent named Charlie Brown infringe on the cartoon copyrights.
The mailers use iconic images from the cartoon strip: Charlie Brown’s yellow shirt with the black zigzag, Lucy’s psychiatric booth and the football that Charlie never manages to kick.
They came from the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington, D.C., and are directed at the Democrat who is challenging Rep. John Doolittle (R-Roseville). The real Brown is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel who is making a run against the eight-term congressman with a strength that is surprising some political pundits.
“Argh!,” wails one flier, reproducing the scrawled type of Snoopy’s lament. “We just can’t afford Charlie Brown’s tax increase.”
After seeing the mailers for the first time on Monday from a reporter from The Union, Monte Schulz dialed his telephone, scanned the mailers and e-mailed them to copyright companies in New York from his Victorian home in Nevada City, which was decorated with Halloween dummies.
“Who should we talk to right now?,” he asked into the phone as he bounced a crossed leg. Casual in flannel and sweats, Schulz fiddled with his glasses as he spoke. A framed black-and-white Peanuts’ cartoon hung above his desk. A Charlie Brown bobblehead grinned from atop an antique wooden bookcase.
“They’re nitwits. Doing this shows they’re not that bright,” Schulz said. “It’s clearly using Peanuts’ stuff. I don’t know if it’s arrogance or ignorance.”
At least three mailers were sent out earlier this month to residents of Doolittle’s district in Northern California.
“Charlie Brown’s plan is going to cost you … more than five cents,” reads the reworked sign above Lucy’s psychiatric booth in one of mailers.
“Good Grief, Charlie Brown … That’s a dangerous plan for California seniors,” the mailer continued.
Richard Robinson, spokesman for the Doolittle campaign, said the Congressional Committee by law does not coordinate with the Doolittle campaign. The first time he saw any of the mailers was when he received one in his own mailbox.
“I don’t think there is any problem whatsoever with the color scheme of the mailers,” Robinson said. “I think what should be concerning voters is what the mailers say.”
The mailers contain brief statements and bullet points. Sources listed for the information in fine print include newspapers in Doolittle’s district, including The Union.
All fair in politics?
The Peanuts’ copyright and trademark is owned by United Media. The Charles M. Schulz Creative Association is responsible for editorial and art control.
Monte Schulz sent copies of the mailers to both companies, which sent them on to lawyers for further investigation.
“We take all matters of infringement seriously,” said Melissa Menta, vice president of corporate communications of United Media.
United Media is owned by media conglomerate E.W. Scripps. Peanuts is considered one of its top-earning cartoons and still is carried in 2,400 newspapers nationwide. Last week, Forbes.com listed Charles Schulz as the third top-earning deceased celebrity in the United States, behind Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain and rock ‘n’ roll king Elvis Presley.
Spokespeople for the Congressional Committee, contacted Monday, said they wanted to confer with their lawyers before commenting about the fliers.
Using the Peanuts’ design without permission in the political spectrum may be allowed because it is considered a form of free speech under the Fair Use Doctrine.
“There is more room to borrow in a political setting than a commercial setting,” said Stephen Davis, a copyright lawyer with Davis & Leonard in Sacramento.
Still, taking a jab at an opponent’s name is a low blow, said Charlie Brown’s campaigners.
“These pieces exemplify the pathetic desperation of our opponent,” said Todd Stenhouse, spokesman for the Charlie Brown campaign. “Name assault just goes to show the sleazy characters we’re dealing with.”
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4230.
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