Praise be, the folks at the Cartoon Network may be saying under their breath. That’s because a federal judge in New York recently dismissed a copyright infringement case against them over their late night show, Black Jesus on Adult Swim.
This comedy series wasn’t for Sunday, church-going souls. It offered more timely and acrid satire from Aaron McGruder and Mike Clattenburg, creators of The Boondocks. For insomniacs and those up to foolishness at hours of the night and morning when working stiffs were eagerly snoring into their pillows, Black Jesus aimed to get into its viewers’ grills and under their skins with a homeless, profane, weed-toking Messiah. The show aired for two seasons (2014-15), featuring 10 episodes in the first season and 11 episodes in the second.
But writer Randy Brown, aka Saint Solomon, cried holy cow over the production, suing Adult Swim, claiming the adult block of the Cartoon Network stole the idea for the show from his published short story, Thank You, Jesus, which featured an African American Christ. Now, writers — by habit and with reason — can be a prickly lot about their ideas, works, and the protections for same. But did a noisy ‘toon so set the creative world asunder that the likes of Time Warner, Turner Broadcasting, the Cartoon Networks and others named by Brown should be ordered to fork over $75 million?
Brown’s complaint, filed in March, 2017, asserted that he wrote and published in 1999 a book of short stories, Uncle Sam’s Nieces and Nephews, including the yarn, Thank You, Jesus. That tale follows Jesus Christ as he performs miracles to persuade doubters that he is the Son of God. Jesus, who is black, has a quick-money scheming friend, Speedy, and the Lord here ends up getting kicked out of his house, becoming another sad homeless denizen of the streets. Brown contended in his suit that the cartoon series, Black Jesus, took up his protagonist’s story two decades later, with the Adult Swim series starring a black, homeless holy man living out of a van.
Were there sufficient similarities to sustain an infringement claim? U.S. District Judge Louis L. Stanton was asked to render his solomonic decision. He noted that both characters were named Jesus, were black, and wore nearly the same but not unusual period garb: tan robes and sandals. They both curse and have scheming best friends, with whom they imbibe a lot.
Now here comes the big legal But ….
Claim smitten, free ideas given wing
Stanton’s opinion, however, found the plot and settings of the book and the cartoon differed significantly — the short story taking place in an undistinguished small town, while the comedy was sited in the LA ‘hood of Compton (more notoriously depicted in the film Straight Out of Compton). Further, Brown’s story focuses on a disgruntled teenager who is convinced he is Jesus, while the TV series depicts a Jesus who is homeless, poor, and scraping by, working in a community garden to grow grass (marijuana) and veggies.
The two characters could not be more different, the judge wrote, saying: “In fact, there are no similarities between the two works beyond the abstract and unprotected idea of an African American male protagonist named Jesus who believes he is the son of God.” And as is recognized throughout copyright law and as the judge said, “Ideas are not protected by copyright.”