Rick and Morty & the Crisis of Intellectual Property

Picture credit: hulu.com
Picture credit: hulu.com

In 2014, acclaimed comedy writer Justin Roiland teamed up with writer/ producer Dan Harmon of Community fame, to unleash the hit animated sci-fi comedy series Rick and Morty upon an unsuspecting world. On the outset, the story of a space traveling scientist and his side-kick grandson might not seem out of place on a family- friendly network like the Disney Channel. However, the show’s cynical edge, deeply flawed characters, and often absurd perspective may not sit comfortably in the House of Mouse.

Rick’s super intelligence allows him to make the impossible real, yet his swollen ego and raging alcohol addiction blind him of the danger he constantly places his loved ones in. Morty is a nervous teen, whose fragile psyche is constantly tested by the pettiness and poor decision-making exhibited by his close family members. Together, the pair humorously confront a series of fantastical encounters such as inter-dimensional paradoxes, alien body-snatchers, a sentient cloud with genocidal intentions which names itself “fart,” a car battery powered by a miniature planet whose inhabitants have been tricked into generating electricity, and robot-like clones that go mad from desperately trying to improve Morty’s dad’s golf game.

However ridiculous, the misguided adventures of the title characters often lead to situations which thoroughly challenge commonly held notions of morality, identity, and freedom of choice. Rick and Morty’s trials and tribulations remind us that however we may seek validation in our lives, the rewards are fleeting or forever slightly out of reach. It is only living with the knowledge of this fact that our lives gain some semblance of significance. Our struggles to achieve meaning in a world which remains indifferent to our aspirations causes our lives to be defined by a certain tension. This tension is not wholly unlike the ever-present strain between creative impulses and the law. When intellectual property law works, it encourages creation while protecting the interests of creators, but performing this tight-rope walk can often prove treacherous.

In 2005, Roiland developed a short web series, called House of Cosby, about an obsessed fan of Bill Cosby who built a cloning machine so that he could hang out with his favorite comedian. Due to a mishap with the machine, the fan unwittingly created hundreds of Cosby copies, each bestowed with its own oddly annoying personality quirk. House of Cosby was well regarded for its obtuse subject matter and absurdist sense of humor but was abruptly discontinued following a cease and desist order from Cosby’s legal team. Cosby claimed that the unauthorized use of his voice, name, and likeness in- fringed on his rights to control his image. The letter also claimed the content of the show was “deeply offensive” and his lawyers aggressively pursued servers and websites that distributed the series until it was taken down.

Though his initial web series was short lived, Roiland was not done courting controversy. His next project was a maddening parody of Back to the Future which relied on shock value to create, in his own words, a “vandalization” of the film. Despite the twisted and contentious content of the program, the series did not receive a cease and desist order from Back to the Future’s production company, Universal Pictures. Instead, the parody versions of Doc Brown and Marty McFly eventually evolved into the characters Rick and Morty which Roiland successfully pitched to Cartoon Network’s mature programming block, Adult Swim. Had he not received the cease and desist which ended House of Cosby, it’s unlikely that Roiland would have pushed the envelope with his Back to the Future parody.

Like the tension between meaning and oblivion, the tension between the law and Roiland’s propensity to find humor in chaos has created something challenging and highly entertaining. Without the protections allotted Cosby to his image and intellectual property under copyright and trademark, he could not protect his interests from the willful abuse of another comedian. These protections forced Roiland to pursue other creative outlets and to push his work towards genuine parody.

Parody is generally protected under 17 USC 107 as a transformative fair use and would have been likely to survive a legal challenge, had one been filed. The development of this parody eventually resulted in a work which was unequivocally superior to Roiland’s previous projects and has garnered him much deserved praise. Since copyright law’s purpose is to perpetuate creative works, this series of events is not only vindicating for Roiland as a creator, but of the law itself.

While copyright law may stifle some creative impulses, Rick and Morty appears to be a clear example of the contrary. It is a testament to what can be accomplished in straddling the tension between order and anarchy. Roiland’s show scores its biggest laughs and makes its most salient points about human nature by mining the conflicts between our existential needs and desires and the indifference of the universe. The functionality of copyright law is also a finite and precarious balancing act, where vibrant creative impulses are tempered by the rights of other artists and the originality of their work.

The law may force some creative endeavors to be abandoned, but this frustration can be the catalyst for creation itself. Whether this is an even trade is a subjective conclusion. Although when this tight-rope is traversed successfully, we can take small comfort in the fact that validation can be found in the struggle between the law and the works it ostensibly protects.

By Michael Reed

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