Classic Media, the company that owns the rights to the fictional canine heroine “Lassie,” has filed a $1 million copyright lawsuit against financial services firm J.G. Wentworth and its advertising agency for making a TV commercial with a dog that allegedly is too similar to its well-known and well-loved character. J.G. Wentworth aired a commercial in which a boy and his mother, dressed in 1950’s garb, are sitting in their kitchen, bemoaning their dire financial situation. It seems the mother is about to lose the ranch. The boy appears to be confused and says, “But mother, don’t you get regular settlement payments?” The mother answers, “Yes, but we need a lump sum payment to pay it off.”
Enter their collie dog who rushes through hill and dale to find help, in the form of J. G. Wentworth, who can provide a cash payout for structured settlements.
Classic Media alleges in its complaint that J.G. Wentworth sent them a couple of emails about licensing the character but that J.G. Wentworth appeared to drop the matter.
Whether a defendant is infringing a copyright by using traits of an iconic fictional character is a close call. Simply evoking the “ghost” of the character is not enough. Stirring one’s memory of the copyrighted character is not the same as creating a character that is substantially similar to the copyrighted character. If the two characters share some traits but look and act differently in the larger context, there will be no infringement. What matters is whether the “overall perception” of the second character is different from the copyrighted character. See Warner Bros. Inc. v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., 720 F.2d 231, (2d Cir. 1983).
J.G. Wentworth will undoubtedly argue that the commercial is a parody. It’s hard to know at this point if that will fly. It’s hard to bet against Lassie, though.
Classic Media LLC v. J.G. Wentworth LLC et al., Docket No. 1:11-cv-08394, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.