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You be the Judge: Garfield Minus Garfield Minus Lawsuit

Aug 12, 2008

by Sarah Feingold handmade and vintage goods

As a well-seasoned judge of intellectual property infringement, you’ve judged cases regarding apple logos, a Danish design, chocolate ads, and a final resting place.  For today’s case docket, it’s time to decide the fate of a missing feline.

Garfield is a daily-syndicated comic strip created by Jim Davis.  The comic, which features the life of the title character Garfield, a cat, his owner, Jon Arbuckle, and the dog, Odie, has been published since 1978 and is syndicated in roughly 2,580 publications.

In February 2008, Dan Walsh created the blog, Garfield Minus Garfield.  Walsh simply removes Garfield, Odie, and a few other characters from the classic Garfield panels.  According to the site, “Garfield Minus Garfield is a site dedicated to removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle.”  The site has received as many as 300,000 hits a day.

And now, I’m sure you know the drill from past You be the Judge articles.  You may be thinking “come on Sarah, tell us about the lawsuit.  Tell us about how Davis sent Walsh a ‘cease and desist letter’ in an attempt to stop this blog.  Tell us about how Davis argues that the blog is infringing on his right to create derivative works or argues trademark infringement.”  Well, sorry folks, in a You be the Judge first, there appears to be no threat of lawsuit.

In a New York Times article, Jim Davis explains that he’s “flattered rather than peeved by the imitation” and admits that “some of [the comics] really work, and some of them work better.”  He goes on to say that Walsh’s blog has prompted him to take a different look at his own work.

But even though there may never be any judges for this scenario, we can still play judge.  And so… You be the Judge!  What do you think of Davis’ decision?  If there were a lawsuit, what would you, the judge, decide?

Check out our other You be the Judge posts for more adjudicatory role-playing.

Letterpress thank you card. Cat says Merci
Letterpress thank you card. Cat says Merci
Mewberry Cutes Brooch - Clement
Mewberry Cutes Brooch - Clement
Lori the Pocket Cat
Lori the Pocket Cat
Austere Polka-Dot Cat - Original art ACEO
Austere Polka-Dot Cat - Original art ACEO


  • jackbear

    jackbear said 11 years ago

    Well, there are provisions for "parody". However, like you said, these are the exact works with Garfield simply erased. If Davis wanted damages, I'm not sure if Walsh is making money from this blog or not? Not that it changes the copyright at all, he's not printing the new strips and selling them, or putting them on t-shirts, is he? my 2 cents. jackbear

  • autumnsarrival

    autumnsarrival said 11 years ago

    Too bad the guy can't come up with his own original idea like Jim Davis did by creating Garfield. However, it is rather big of Davis for not being upset about it like others would be. I used to love Garfield...but Calvin & Hobbes still rule my comic world.

  • jellibat

    jellibat said 11 years ago

    well in this case Jim Davis has allowed a book to be released of the works , and good for him. He can see the merit in this derivitive/homage work, Dan Walsh has taken what is often seen after all these years as a somewhat tired formulaic comic and given it a whole new lease of life with a completely different meaning and audience. Plus he gets to profit off it as well, from this work, and it also brings people back to read his original comic strips. it's a win win situation really

  • abitabite

    abitabite said 11 years ago

    Did he has the right to do it without Davis' permission - do i dont think so. Without Davis work, the "product" could not stand alone... it would just be empty squares. Would Davis have given him permission to do it, if the idea was just described to him, rather than he discovering an already robust collection - probably not. Because he wouldn't have have the same experience of viewing his own work from a different perspective without actual examples, and probably would have said, wtf, no! you cant slightly alter my comics and republish them if he was pitched just the idea without examples. Should he continue - sure, Davis doesn't seem to mind.

  • peaceofpi

    peaceofpi said 11 years ago

    Thanks for this article {whispers} more, more, more! Interesting choice made by Davis - of course the option is his to do (or not do)what he thinks is right/best/prudent. I'm thinking he probably did have a wee chat with his lawyers/publicist/cat about how to respond, Davis most likely weighed the massive amounts of free publicity he is getting from this site against the possible monetary gain and negative press possible from suing the blogger. If I was the judge, I'd send them all to the local animal shelter for some community service. Couldn't hurt. Nice to see some orange etsy cats, derivative of the big G or not. Meow.

  • ChaseNorway

    ChaseNorway said 11 years ago

    I've had the GarfieldMinusGarfield strip on my RSS for a few weeks now and I really feel there is true genius behind Dan Walsh recognizing how, without Garfield, Jon is a lonely, depressed, bipolar and socially inept individual. That aside, because there is no profit being made from the strip, there are no grounds for claiming damages. However, because Jon can probably be viewed as a trademark of Jim Davis, he would have full right to ask for a cease-and-desist of the GMG strip if he chose to do so at any time. As a fellow artist, I think I would probably take the same stance as Mr. Davis and consider it flattery, but if there was money being made from it, I'd still want a cut.

  • boxbrown

    boxbrown said 11 years ago

    As a comics creator, I can see that GMG is something worth reading. It's a new take on an old (and very very stale) work. Jim Davis should be happy anyone is still paying attention to the most overrated strip in comics history. I even made a PARODY of GMG on my blog:

  • studiovirgo

    studiovirgo said 11 years ago

    I think this is a case where no one would mistake Walsh as the creator of the images; I really think it behooves artists (especially really well known ones) to let this kind of reinterpretation, appropriation, and ironic re-envisioning go on. There's a difference between reselling something as your own, and valid commentary...humor especially relies on something that serves as base material for commentary. There is nothing new under the sun. Look at "Get Your War On." It's a brilliant and extremely crass, funny criticism of current events, but David Rees did it entirely with stock clip art. The creativity is in the final product. I guess it's like that oft-cited definition of pornography; I can't define for you what the difference is between brilliant appropriation and rip-off, but "I know it when I see it."

  • AchAchLiebling

    AchAchLiebling said 11 years ago

    Well, since there was no lawsuit, there isn't really an issue. But it's obvious to me that GMG is commentary, not plagerism.

  • Slowshirts

    Slowshirts said 11 years ago

    Appropriation at it's finest! I wondered myself What Jim Davis thought, and am happy to hear he is flattered.

  • Mailleman

    Mailleman said 11 years ago

    I heard about the 'Garfield Minus Garfield' idea in the Guardian a little while ago, and never really gave it a second thought. I think that, while this could of course be considered a violation of some kind, it has a clear value of its own, and clearly Dan Walsh isn't claiming Garfield as his own creation. If Jim Davis is happy, then I don't see any problem with it.

  • dogties

    dogties said 11 years ago

    Nice, thanks for sharing!


    KAHOONICA said 11 years ago

    Oooh I love Garfield Minus Garfield. I'm too biased to judge on this one..

  • sseloske

    sseloske said 11 years ago

    I love Garfield minus Garfield. I also agree that it falls in the "lawfully dubious" category. On one hand, Garfield (the strip and the cat) is fully copy righted. Without express permission from Davis, his publishers, and his syndicators, I would think that redistributing his work or portions of his work would be a major no-no. On the other hand, Walsh had a brilliant and unique idea independent of the original strip. Are any of you familiar with ? Brad Neely's "Wizard People, Dear Reader" had a similar legal snag. Also, as a side note: Davis' publisher is actually publishing a compilation of the orginal Garfield and Garfield minus Garfield, with the strips side-by-side for comparison.

  • Vanessa Admin

    Vanessa said 11 years ago

    I think remixing/parody take is valuable artistic expression that is different from creating original works. I think properly attributing the pieces in the derivative is key. One of the problems is that as things get passed around, viewers don't realize the original intent of the piece or what they're referring to. It's like a game of telephone.

  • baddinsdesign

    baddinsdesign said 11 years ago

    I think jim davis's response to the blog is perfect and the nicest possible way he could have responded. art as a dialogue benefits the original artist and the creative community at large. I think everyone viewing the missing garfield blog knows about Jim Davis and sees the blog as a riff on the original artist's work. It would be entirely different if the blogger tried to pass off the images as entirely his own rather than appropriated images. Kudos Jim Davis you're an icon! Kudos Dan Walsh you're hilarious!

  • esdesigns

    esdesigns said 11 years ago

    interesting- i think in court they'd find that it was transformative based on the statement on the blog. it's altering a text for the purpose of revealing something about it. it also benefits the original author- it's helping revive interest in the comic. so i'm sure it would be considered fair use.

  • DawnLewisImagery

    DawnLewisImagery said 11 years ago

    This just makes me admire Jim Davis even more ... what a gracious man.

  • Mattson

    Mattson said 11 years ago

    I think subtraction really is addition in this case. I love his (Walsh's) site, and think the new strips (for the most part) are brilliant, and very funny, and have ever since I first saw it a couple of months ago. The title of this page had me worried--I thought Jim Davis had gone and decided to get all lawyer-ly after all with this very nice re-mix tribute site--but am relieved that he has not. Kudos to him for not; maybe he knows that somebody has finally brought the hip back to Garfield. (By removing him entirely, but still...)

  • curlyfrysc

    curlyfrysc said 11 years ago

    If there WERE a lawsuit, the judge would be in favor of Davis as his work is being published elsewhere without his permission. But since he's okay with what the site is about and has even "inspired" him then there's nothing to talk about, here.

  • myaphrodite

    myaphrodite said 11 years ago

    It doesn't seem to be any less of a parody than the site dedicated to removing the word "wand" from Harry Potter books and replacing it with the word "wang", creating, as you might expect some fairly adult reading. As far as I know, although JK Rowling has sued some OTHER people for infringement, she hasn't gone after the Wang Guy. Intellectually, Garfield minus Garfield isn't really any different than painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa and claiming it as your own. That said, LEGALLY, I'm sure Davis would have a case if he wanted to, so I say a big WELL DONE to him for not lawyering up and letting this frankly quite hysterical site continue to exist.

  • myaphrodite

    myaphrodite said 11 years ago

    whoa, sorry about that computer hiccup.

  • Art2ArtColorado

    Art2ArtColorado said 11 years ago

    Davis is suave... smart move, imho, to take the stance he did in this case. (300,000 hits per day is not bad viewing) and what a great introspective peek at humanity to see Arbuckle talking to himself without the opinionated kitty, lol! Davis would have a good case... but, i think he's already won in many respects.

  • isewcute

    isewcute said 11 years ago

    I wonder if United Media would jump on Peanuts minus Snoopy? I have to agree with Art2Art that Jim Davis has won in many respects.

  • clumsygirl

    clumsygirl said 11 years ago

    There have been a lot of examples of this type of image re-use in the past. Especially in art history... Just look at Andy Warhol and Campbell's Soup, Brillo Pads and Mickey Mouse. Current pop culture would be nothing without appropriation and re-use.

  • chetart

    chetart said 11 years ago

    Impressive stance by Jim Davis. The concept is an interesting one and it would seem he's acknowledging it by his attitude.

  • LoucheLab

    LoucheLab said 11 years ago

    Sometimes erasing or adding to an art piece is making new art, the famous Dushamp Mona Lisa (he gave her a little facial hair and wrote some dirty joke at the bottom). I Also know of some photographer who's name I can't recall, who built a carer off painting in solid black all the faces of people's family pictures. I think the question is whether the Garfield without Garfield artist add a meaning or context to the original or not, I think he does. I really like this idea of how without the comfort of our familiar society we are all considered nuts. I'm also really impressed with Garfield creator for taking this well and not being narrow minded and possessive about his art.

  • emilyfrances

    emilyfrances said 11 years ago

    Gutsy move by putting the two strips side by side in the upcoming book. I feel that this will most likely only reinforce the fact that Garfield Minus Garfield is a funnier, more compelling, and more relevant work by far.

  • Spiderbite

    Spiderbite said 11 years ago

    Jim Davis is cool.

  • Spiderbite

    Spiderbite said 11 years ago

    That's my judgment.

  • rosiemusic

    rosiemusic said 11 years ago

    Im delighted to hear 'Garfield minus Garfield' exists, and would definitely cosider this as an art expression. In the 60's the Situationist french movement shocked the society by adding vicious and dada-esques messages to popular comic books and adds (they called this 'detournement'), Walsh did just that but in a less-punkish, more sublte way. ^_^

  • amberalexander

    amberalexander said 11 years ago

    it's an interesting idea... Mr. Arbuckle talks to himself very much like my husband ;)amusing :) I agree with an earlier poster that Davis deserves a pat on the back. It may end up being a symbiotic relationship. However, If Jim decided it was detrimential to his business, I wouldn't blame him for doing something about it. I think Garfield minus garfield can actually be good for the original Garfield.

  • hillarietasche

    hillarietasche said 11 years ago

    I find him guilty of hilarity...

  • GingerDead

    GingerDead said 11 years ago

    i'm glad davis can be a good sport and even go so far as to say some of them work better. in my opinion they are all better without garfield. guilty of hilarity, indeed.

  • NuminaWearableArt

    NuminaWearableArt said 9 years ago

    You know, I always wondered about what had to be going on in that household and how it related to Mr. Arbuckle's head. There were times when it crossed my mind that it *could* just all be in Jon's head. In the original, he is essentially a foil, the way parents are in stories aimed at children. Definite kudos to Jim Davis. Personally, when it comes to copyright, I think that folks get bent out of shape too easily about these things. Not to say that I'm cavalier about the rights of others... but in my natural state I'd be a collage and found objects sort of artist. Unfortunately, since altering or sampling a little bit of someone else's stuff is no deterrent to getting lawsuits flung your way... I just stay away, and do due diligence about all samples I do use. Too bad more people out there aren't like Jim. ~V

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