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©ancelling Dr. Seuss

Posted by on Tuesday, November 28, 2023 in Articles, Volume 26, Volume 26, Issue 1.

Cathay Y. N. Smith | 26 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. L. 73 (2023)

Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced in March 2021 that it would no longer license or publish six of its children’s books because those books portrayed people in racist or culturally stereotypical ways. Since then, the public has learned through news reports and social media that other publishers have similarly reviewed and altered their catalogues of classic children’s works, including withdrawing them from the public, editing them to remove problematic content, or adding disclaimers to warn the public about racially insensitive or outdated content. The public reaction to Dr. Seuss’s decision and these other actions has been largely divided. Some criticized these decisions as censorship or a product of “cancel culture.” Others applauded the decisions as a long overdue reckoning with problematic portrayals in children’s works. While recent decisions to alter or withdraw classic works have generated significant attention and controversy, it is in fact not uncommon for authors, copyright owners, and publishers to remedy racist or sexist content in their expressive works, especially in works intended for children.

This Article examines one approach that copyright owners have taken to deal with racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic classic children’s works—ceasing to make those works available to the public. Specifically, copyright owners have attempted to withdraw certain problematic children’s works by ceasing to publish, license, perform, or broadcast those works, and otherwise making those works unavailable to the public. This Article reviews well-known examples of copyright owners ceasing to make their popular children’s works available to the public, including Dr. Seuss’s refusal to publish or license six of its books, United Artists’ failure to broadcast cartoons known as the “Censored Eleven,” and Disney’s rejection of its controversial film Song of the South. It examines the copyright law and policy implications of those actions, and explores the balance and conflicts between copyright policy, free speech, and social policy.

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