Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Doctor Is Out: Peanuts, Intellectual Property, and Fair Use

I had a great idea. It was Hanukkah last year and the shorties had gotten gift cards from my grandparents for a national chain bookstore. Being the proto-nerds that they are, they had big plans for them. One advantage to being from a minority community is that stores are still open on your holidays, so on the way home we stopped.

As they moved from "young readers" to "humor" in order to look at Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes collections, I went back to the philosophy section to turn The Grateful Dead and Philosophy cover out on the shelf. Then it hit me.

I've always loved Charlie Brown. Rereading them with the short people, I realized how Minnesotan Charles Schultz really was. His mother was Norwegian and that Scandinavian sensibility is shot all through the strip. It was one of those light bulb moments that makes you giddy because the more you work it through, the tighter it gets.

It was a book, You're a Good Being-For-Itself, Charlie Brown: A Peanuts Introduction to Existentialism. A niche book perhaps, but little in philosophy has more of a market than existentialism and it works off of the success of the philosophy and popular culture series. Best of all, it flowed perfectly. The early chapters would cover the influences that led to existentialism while the later ones examine the movement itself:

Chapter 1 -- "Schroeder the Ubermensch" looks at Nietzsche's approach to moving humans beyond good and evil. Schroeder is the future of humanity, playing Beethoven (the quintessential German romantic) and catcher on the Peanuts ball team (the toughest, most physically demanding of all positions). His disinterest in Lucy's advances show that he puts transcendence before mere comfort.

Chapter 2 -- "The Great Pumpkin and The Knight of Faith" takes Linus as Kierkegaard's knight of faith. God, Kierkegaard argues is that which lies beyond the edge of reason. To take a leap of faith is to reject the rational for the higher truth. He knows he will be mocked as a blockhead, yet the usually rational Linus willingly and hopefully takes the leap that lands him in the pumpkin patch at 2 in the morning each year, faith unabated.

Chapter 3 -- "The Doctor Is In" discusses Freud's psychology and takes the ever-in-control Lucy as an example of the tension between the motivational theories of Freud and the radical autonomy of the existentialists.

Chapter 4 -- "From Angst to Aaaargh" looks at Sartre's brand of existentialism and shows how Charlie Brown lives the angst and alienation that he argues are the essential features of human life.

Chapter 5 -- "Why Do You Keep Calling Me Sir?" looks at de Beauvior's work on gender through Peppermint Patty (the opposite of the standard socially enforced picture of femininity), Marcy (the oppressed), and the Little Red Haired Girl who never appears but is constructed in the mind of Charlie Brown as the image of perfect femininity.

Chapter 6 -- "We Must Imagine Snoopy Happy" looks at Camus' Myth of Sisyphus and examines Snoopy and Charlie Brown as his absurd men. Just as Sisyphus rolls his boulder to the top of the hill knowing that it will roll down again only to trod to the bottom to undertake the task again, so too Charlie Brown knows that Lucy will pull the football away. Yet, time and again he charges. Snoopy creates his own reality to give his life meaning. He is a pet, but he transcends being owned by experiencing life as he chooses.

That was the idea. I was excited. So, I contact the Peanuts folks at United Media and get this response:

I would like to thank you for your interest in PEANUTS and Mr. Schulz's work. Unfortunately, due to various restrictions we cannot grant your request to use the PEANUTS characters in this way. I'm sorry to disappoint. We wish you the best.
It was, to say the least, disappointing. It would have made a fun, interesting read that would have been a blast to write.

The question here is over control of characters as intellectual property. Surely, using individual strips without permission would be problematic, but referring to characters? Aren't they a part of the larger cultural consciousness? If this were a book for academic use, then fair use would probably cover it; but if it was a trade book for profit, that does seem a bit different. what if I wrote these up as blog posts, would that be problematic?

Judge Charles Metzner in the suit filed by Isaiah Berlin against Mad Magazine contended that satire is a protected form of speech. This wouldn't be satire, but a pedagogical use that seems to fulfill a similar social goal. Should explication be given the same breadth as satire?