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Walker v. Viacom International, Inc., et al.

The district court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment after concluding that plaintiff’s four-panel, self-published black and white comic strip depicting a sponge with human features named Bob Spongee was not substantially similar to defendants’ cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants and that the plaintiff failed to show that the defendants had access to his comic strip.

The plaintiff printed copies of his comic strip and attached them to about 1,000 sponge dolls that he made and distributed during 1992 in the San Francisco area, mostly at shopping malls. The plaintiff also advertised the sponge dolls in the classified ad section of the Oakland Tribune.

As a preliminary matter, the court held that the copyright claim would be limited to the plaintiff’s comic strip because the plaintiff included only the comic strip in his application for copyright registration and because the character depicted in the comic strip was significantly different from either the sponge doll or the character shown in the newspaper ad.

Regarding access, the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants denied having heard of the plaintiff’s work, the plaintiff did not send his comic strip to any of the defendants, and the plaintiff’s comic strip was not widely disseminated. The court held that the plaintiff’s suggestion that the defendants had access to his work because the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants traveled to northern California in late 1991 and late 1993 fell far short of raising a triable issue of fact on access.

The court also compared the plaintiff’s character, who is married, has a daughter, was laid off from his job, doesn’t wear any clothes, and lives in a house on Apple Street, to SpongeBob SquarePants, who lives in a pineapple under the sea, is not married, acts like an adolescent, wears clothes, has buck teeth and no eyebrows and found them to be not similar. The court held that the only similarities between the two characters – that they are rectangular anthropomorphic sponges with arms and legs and big round eyes – are stock elements that flow from the idea of humanizing a sponge.