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Steve Outing's "Stop the Presses!" Column









Stop The Presses

Online News Industry News & Analysis

Family Circus: They Just Don't Get It

Steve By Steve Outing, Monday, September 20, 1999

Often in this column, I try to help old-media companies understand how to survive and thrive in the new-media environment. It's often the case that traditional news media companies must cast off old ways of thinking, because in the world of interactive media, such thinking is dysfunctional.

Yesterday's headlines offered up an example of a traditional media company thinking in old-media terms, and shooting itself in the foot as a result.

Wired News reported that the 5-year-old Web site Dysfunctional Family Circus (DFC) is in danger of being shut down. A parody site that lets Web users author their own comic strip captions and thus poke fun at Bil Keane's Family Circus syndicated comic strip, DFC's owner is being threatened with legal action by Bil Keane Inc. and King Features Syndicate unless he shuts down the site (or alters it in order to remove all references to "Family Circus" or the characters of the strip).

A 'funny' strip

Family Circus is ripe for parody. A 40-year-old comic panel about a 1950s-vintage "normal" American family (mom, dad, four kids, dog, cat, grandma, and grandpa in heaven), the humor and illustration style has varied little over the decades. Its humor is best described as "saccharine," and is terribly dated. Yet the strip is a classic, and runs in more than 1,500 newspapers worldwide. Keane has published more than 60 Family Circus books.

Parody, of course, is protected speech in the U.S., but what Keane and King are complaining about is that DFC site operator Greg Galcik has been taking Family Circus panels and posting them on his Web site, and using the words Family Circus, without permission — an infringement of Keane and King's trademark and copyright. If Galcik had created original artwork that looked similar to Family Circus comic panels, and used a name like "Family Bigtop," the syndicate's lawyers wouldn't have a leg to stand on.

But that's not the case. Galcik uses real Family Circus cartoon panels, posting them on his site with an open invitation for anyone to author their own captions. The collected captions, of which he highlights some of the best ones, are often hysterically funny — but they also can be quite profane. (One reader-contributed caption for a panel of young Billy sitting on dad's lap: "Whoa! You've been into my Flintstones chewable Viagra, haven't you, big boy?")

The DFC site represents what the Web is best at: user-generated content. The site also is quite popular, generating between 50,000 and 70,000 pageviews per day. A typical parody strip will include between 20 and 40 user-written captions.

Infringement? Probably

Certainly, Keane and King are within their rights to complain about infringement. If Galcik indeed is copying Family Circus panels and posting them on his Web site without permission, that's copyright infringement.

But I think Keane and King are making a mistake by trying to put a stop to this parody site. They're going to get a black eye from the publicity. Here's how it looks: successful cartoonist and his syndicate try to squelch a popular parody of the work, angering legions of online fans of the parody.

Let's face it, Keane's comic strip is going to be parodied mercilessly throughout the Web. It already happens on Amazon.com, where many of the user-written reviews on Bil Keane Family Circus book pages are spoofs. If Keane/King succeed in shutting down DFC, other Web sites will pop up in response. If the strategy is to use legal means to stifle parody of Family Circus, it can't work because those people who want to make fun of Keane and his comic strip will merely create new ones.

Remember, it costs little or nothing to publish a site like DFC. Anyone who wanted to do something similar could use a free home page service like GeoCities, Homestead.com or Tripod.com to host a Family Circus parody site. Keane/King lawyers could aggressively go after anyone who does something similar, but that seems foolish.

In a situation like this, you have to think differently. First, I'd suggest that Keane and King Features simply let this one be. Leave Galcik alone and let him continue his site. (It's been running for five years already, so it's curious that only now were the lawyers called into action.) Going to the trouble of prosecuting and making an example of him have the potential of backfiring, and spawning a wave of even more malicious Family Circle parodies.

But here's a better way to handle it — a new-media-savvy way. King Syndicate and Keane should launch their own Family Circus parody site. Post the Family Circus panels without Keane's captions, and allow Web users to make up their own. Turn it into a contest, with the best caption writers winning an autographed copy of a Family Circus original strip. In effect, King could circumvent the "market need" for a site like Dysfunctional Family Circus by giving Keane fans and critics a chance to "have their say."

Such a site would bring the syndicate into the digital age, because it would demonstrate that its executives understand that online users should have the opportunity to interact with the talent that the syndicate represents.

To be sure, profane entries such as appear on DFC should be left unpublished, but King and Keane can't shy away from letting online users make fun. In short, they need to be good sports about it.

As the old saying goes, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." This episode is a classic example of where that advice works a thousand times better than calling in the lawyers.

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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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