CBLDF Case Files – Top Shelf v. U.S. Customs

In October 2004 U.S. Customs in the port of South Carolina sent a letter to Top Shelf Productions, informing them that copies of comic book anthologies Stripburger (Vol. 12) #37 and Stripburger (Vol. 3) #4–5 had been seized. U.S. Customs alleged that two stories, respectively “Richie Bush” by Peter Kuper and “Moj Stub” by Bojan Redžić, constituted “clearly piratical copies” of registered and recorded copyrights.

“Richie Bush,” a four-page parody of Richie Rich, satirized the Bush Administration by superimposing the personalities of the Presidential cabinet upon characters in the original comic. “Moj Stub” is an eight-page Serbian ecology fable featuring brief homage to Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Woodstock. Customs seized fourteen copies of Stripburger (Vol. 12) #37, valued at $280.00, and five copies of Stripburger (Vol. 3) #4–5, a value of $125.00. The covers of the seized books featured no graphics from either story.

At the urging of Stripburger, the Eastern European comics publisher responsible for the seized comics, Top Shelf publisher and then Comic Book Legal Defense Fund president Chris Staros brought the case to the attention of the Fund. Executive Director Charles Brownstein decided that the case required legal attention. He reasoned that U.S. Customs was unlawfully holding material protected by the First Amendment. The Fund Board of Directors unanimously agreed to take on the case.

Brownstein stated, “The stories that were seized are short segments within larger anthologies that in no way represented the content as anything other than what it is. The charge that these are piratical copies of existing copyrights is not only wrong-headed, but the seizure amounts to an unlawful prior restraint of protected speech. It is our hope that Customs will recognize that they have acted in error in seizing these stories and release them immediately. If not, we are prepared to go to court to protect the First Amendment rights that are endangered by this misguided action.”

The Fund retained counsel with Attorney Gregg Meyers in Charleston, South Carolina, who delivered a letter to U.S. Customs stating that the seized comics are protected under existing First Amendment case law and should be immediately released or court action would be initiated. U.S. Customs recognized its imprecise conduct following the Fund’s intervention and released the books in question, Further, they refunded the $250 filing fee paid by Top Shelf to challenge the seizure.

Brownstein, delighted with the reversal, related, “This is great news. It’s exactly the kind of victory we want, where reason prevails and no one has to go to court. It’s always better to prevent a trial than defend a trial, and I’m pleased that the government felt the same way in this case and returned the materials that were wrongfully seized.”

Staros added, “Despite the low dollar value of the books seized, the principal of this issue—that of Customs overreaching its authority to judge what is parody and what is not—was definitely worth fighting for. Hopefully, the victory in this case will help prevent future incidents of this nature, where a publisher would have much more to lose if, for example, an entire print run was seized.”