By J. DeVoy
For almost a decade, I’ve been a fan of the cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force (ATHF). I even convinced Marc to heavily quote the show in a recent USPTO filing. Beyond being pointlessly amusing, though, the show has offered some real-life intersection with the law.
Most memorably, the residents of Boston thought that LED displays of the shows more memorable characters – the Mooninites – were bombs. Panic ensued, and a city once considered annoying solely for its accents defused and ruined a costly public relations campaign. To avoid possible criminal charges or civil claims, Time Broadcasting Systems and Interference Inc., responsible for the Cartoon Network, its Adult Swim brand of programming and this stunt, agreed to pay $2 million to the City of Boston and US Department of Homeland Security.
Smartly, the men behind the prank refused to talk about the event when confronted by the media. Instead, they offered a summary of haircuts in the 1970s.
Before that, though, ATHF’s creators faced a threat of a different nature: Copyright infringement. In November 2006, Terrance Yerves brought suit against Time Warner, Inc., Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., the Cartoon Network and rapper Schoolly D (a/k/a Jesse Weaver, Jr.) because of the ATHF theme song. Yerves v. Time Warner, No. 2:06-cv-04950-MAM (E.D. Pa. 2006). In his complaint, Yerves claims he performed the drum tack underlying the show’s theme song during a time when he and Schoolly D were recording in the same studio. Yerves alleges that Schoolly D sought his input and assistance, and D later used an untitled drum tack Yerves recorded as the foundation for the ATHF theme song, which has been used in every show since its debut December 30, 2000. (For the movie, ATHF went in a different direction and recruited metal band Mastodon to do an introduction song.) In addition to damages, Yerves sought an injunction and declaratory relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2201.
After various extensions were granted – none of the defendants ever filed an answer or other responsive pleading to Yerves’ complaint – the case settled in May of 2007. The suit’s dismissal was ordered on May 17, 2007. No information as to settlement terms or amounts is publicly available. Possibly worth noting, though, is that the case was dismissed with prejudice.
Yet, in a very meta way, the show has always been acutely aware of its own Copyright issues. In a Season 2 episode, “Universal Remonster,” the Plutonians – Emery and Oglethorpe – used a time-and-space spanning portal to steal cable from the Aqua Teens’ New Jersey ranch house. Despite an obvious resemblance to the Stargate of movie and television fame, and identical function, the Plutonians insisted that the object be called a “Fargate.”
The episode went on the tear on the shallow abuses of Fair Use which the Cartoon Network and its Adult Swim lineup had endured, mostly by being so popular among the internet piracy generation. In one scene, the Powerpuff Girls – a then-iconic symbol of the Cartoon Network’s economic and cultural might – are depicted on a promotional t-shirt in wheelchairs and sporting mohawks so as to avoid lawsuits.
Emory: [indicating Universal Remonster T-shirt] Is that, like, a Powerpuff Girl, or something?
Oglethorpe: No! Can you not see she has a pink mohawk and a wheelchair? We’re not getting sued. (source)
The meme is continued throughout the episode.
Oglethorpe: [Emory keeps calling saying “Stargate”] IT IS A FARGATE! From the makers of Thindependence Day! We will give it a mohawk and wheelchair if you need help. (source)
Later, the “Fargate” is depicted in a wheelchair, sporting a bright-pink mohawk.
In sum, ATHF is acutely aware of the environment in which it exists, and makes some amusing observations about it. At its high points, the writing brushes against the lofty ceiling of television comedy erected by seasons 2 through 9 of The Simpsons. Through its parody, though, it shows its respect of Copyright law, rather than ignoring it and blatantly stealing ideas and jokes from other shows, writers and artists, even under the cheap guise of homage.