The Chilling Adventures of Copyright Infringement
This past fall, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was the Netflix Original that everyone was talking about. This show reimagines the world of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (a popular show released in the 90’s) with a new, dark spin. In this version of the show, Sabrina must choose between joining the world of witchcraft that her family belongs to and remaining in the human world with her boyfriend and friends. Yet what appeared to be a single choice she had to make turns into an everlasting battle between Sabrina and Dark Lord.
Unfortunately, the popularity arising around the show also attracted legal attention. Just several weeks after the show was released on Netflix, the United Federation of Churches LLC, also known as the Satanic Temple (TST) filed a suit for copyright infringement, false designation of original, false description, and forbidden trademark dilution under 15 U.S.C. § 1125. The Satanic Temple named both Netflix and Warner Bros Entertainment as defendants: Netflix for distributing the series and Warner Bros for producing it. The complaint claimed that the defendants “prominently feature, benefit from and defame TST’s unique original expression…of the historic Baphomet, an androgynous goat-headed deity.” Their “original expression” is known as the TST Baphomet with Children, which is their own take on the Baphomet and includes very particular features such as the placement of human children on either side of the deity. Additionally, the deity is portrayed with a male’s chest, rather than with the chest of a female. The TST Baphomet with Children is a registered copyright known as the “Statue of Baphomet and Children” and has been famously known to be the mark of the Satanic Temple. The statue cost around $100,000 and many hours of the Temple’s time to develop.
Yet according to the complaint, the Sabrina series portrays a clear copy of this copyrighted image, and misappropriates it throughout four episodes of the show and many advertisements to represent the evil antagonists. It is this misrepresentation that seems to have outraged the Satanic Temple, as they were founded in order to encourage benevolence and empathy amongst people “rejecting tyrannical authority, advocating practical and common-sense justice, and undertaking noble pursuits guided by individual will.” The Satanic Temple does not believe in promoting evil, believes that undue suffering is bad, and sees Satan as an eternal rebel against God’s authority. Members do not worship Satan, despite what the name might suggest.
Additionally, the Satanic Temple brought a claim of forbidden trademark dilution, arguing that the TST Baphomet with Children is a famous mark within the meaning of 15 U.S.C. §1125(c), and the show’s portrayal of the mark tarnished it. Under Section 1125(c), a mark is famous if it is “widely recognized by the general consuming public of the United States as a designation of the source of the goods or services of the mark’s owner.” If it fits as a “famous mark” then Section 1125(c) allows the owner of such a mark to receive injunctive relief against anyone who uses the mark in commerce in a way that is “likely to cause dilution by blurring or dilution by tarnishment of the famous mark.”
After discovering the infringements, the Satanic Temple claims that they notified the defendants regarding the violations. The defendants had not been licensed any of these exclusive intellectual property rights. When asked about the statue, production designer for the show Lisa Soper suggested it was just a coincidence and not any different from other variations of the statue already existing.
On November 21st of 2018, just a couple weeks after the complaint was filed, the Satanic Temple announced that the lawsuit had been “amicably settled.” In the initial complaint, the Temple had asked for at least $50 million. According to Lucien Greaves, who is a co-founder of the Temple, the credits of the show’s episodes that have already been filmed will acknowledge the Temple and the unique elements of the statue that have been copied. However, we won’t know what the rest of the settlement entails, what will happen with the rest of the show, or if there was any financial component, as it is confidential. While copyright issues don’t always attract this much publicity, the combination of a large organization and a popular Netflix Original brought it before our eyes. What does this mean for future individuals or groups who witness their own creativity being appropriated by large companies without warning? While there was no court-ordered remedy for the Temple in the case in light of the settlement, it is clear that major companies are willing to settle when they are in the wrong to avoid litigation. Perhaps the rise of social media will protect against future blatant copyright infringement as well: with one post that tags the party in the wrong, individuals can draw serious attention to the issues they face. But only time will show what the future holds for the world of copyright (and witchcraft?).
Elina Milshtein is a J.D. candidate, 2020, at NYU School of Law.