At left is a frame from Bil Keane's The Family Circus, a widely syndicated cartoon that has always been saccharine and recently seems senile. Can you think of a good caption for the picture?
One Web surfer proposed, "Once Dolly perfected the telekinetic wedgie, it was either succumb to the constant blackmail, like Billy, or pay the price." Another offered, "First day of school in the Keane household: Jeffy always reached the front door only to realize that he hadn't aged a single year!" In another suggestion, Jeffy says, "Oh SHIT….The ghost of Barfy is coming out of Dolly's ear!"
That all happened at Greg Galcik's The Dysfunctional Family Circus, a site where readers added their own captions to Keane's cartoons. Some took on the strip's antiseptic spirit; some made fun of Keane's art; some invented elaborate pornographic subplots. Some were brilliant; some were stupid.
And all of them, Keane claimed, were illegal. In September, his lawyer instructed Galcik to delete "any references to The Family Circus on your site" and to supply the "names and addresses of any individual who has assisted you."
Galcik voluntarily retired the feature after a long talk with Keane, satisfying both sides of the dispute but also keeping the right of parody from having its day in court. Until free speech and fair use can prevail before a judge, the really dysfunctional circus will be America's increasingly restrictive copyright laws.