D'oh! House GOP Website Pirates <em>Simpsons</em> Images?

You would think that a press release from a ranking House committee minority member with "Commerce" in its name would be aware of copyright issues.
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[Mayor "Diamond" Joe Quimby and tycoon C. Montgomery Burns]

You may well wonder why I, a (mostly) serious political analyst, begin my weekly Wednesday column with the images of two Simpsons characters. The answer is: these two images are the story. More on that in a bit.

With little fanfare, almost two weeks ago House member Joe Barton (the ranking Republican member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce) issued a rather strange press release. If you didn't notice, don't feel too bad, as almost nobody did. But it has now finally come to my attention, and it deserves comment -- both for the press release itself and for the images which accompanied it (which are reproduced above).

But first, the press release itself. Here is their entire press release, issued under the category "Children's Health Fact of the Day" (which indeed has its own cute little icon).

Republican businessman Montgomery Burns today joined with Mayor Joe Quimby, D-Springfield, to support the Senate’s gazillion-dollar SCHIP bill.

“If the poor children can get a piece of the action, why can’t I?” explained Burns at a MoveOn.org rally in Capital City. “The little darlings are needy? Me, too. I need somebody to pay. Quimby here says he knows a bunch of low-income nobodies who are ripe for the picking. Excellent.”

“You need this?” wondered the mayor. “Well, why not. I’ve got needs, too. Why, I’ve got 27 paternity suits pending and to quote the Speaker, ‘suffer the little children.’ The Quimby Compound is overflowing with those little sufferers. Vote Quimby.”

Inexplicably, the mayor then leaned toward a comely MoveOn organizer and whispered in her ear, “Ah, if anyone asks, you’re my niece from out of town and you don’t get SCHIP.”

“But Uncle Joe, I am your niece from out of town, and I do get SCHIP.”

“Good Lord, I’m a monster!” exclaimed the mayor.

Mr. Burns shrugged and pressed on with a stirring call to arms: “Truth and fairness, these are the demons we must slay if we wish to save the tykes.”

His patience was tested when a ruckus arose from a restive crowd of backdrop-toddlers who’d been rented by MoveOn for the photo-op. “Get these props away from me,” Burns hissed.

“Kids? Who needs ‘em? Rahm, release the hounds!” added Quimby with a spreading grin. “Ha, I’ve always wanted to say that, Burns.”

The 37 rental children fled and were not seen again, but the arf-arf-arfing of their pursuers could be heard well past sunset.

Now, your first reaction to this, if you're anything like me, is: "This must be some kind of spoof site!" Unfortunately, it's not. Your tax dollars went to pay for a United States House web server which is currently displaying this page. If you really don't believe that, start at www.house.gov, then go to the "Energy and Commerce Committee" page, select "Minority" from the top menu bar, and find the press release issued on 10/12/07. I admit, I had to track this one back before I believed it myself.

As for the text of the press release, as always when Republicans try their hand at satire, you feel there should be barricades and police tape up with: "WARNING!! REPUBLICANS ATTEMPTING HUMOR!!" printed on it, in order to prepare the general public at large.

Republican Representative Joe Barton, the ranking minority member of the committee whose name graces the top of this press release, who incidentally denounced Democratic Representative Pete Stark recently, for intemperate remarks on the House floor. While at the same time he's issuing press releases making fun of toddlers being savaged by attack dogs -- and blaming such behavior on Democrats (I assume he's referring to Democratic Representative Rahm Emanuel, the only "Rahm" in Washington of which I am aware). It's downright surreal.

But what caught my eye was not the text of the press release, which (after all) is covered by the First Amendment's free speech guarantee of protection for political satire (weak though such satire may indeed be) -- but the images themselves. Images are not protected as satire, unless the image itself is satire (the protection which covers all political cartoons). But these seem to be unadulterated images taken straight from The Simpsons television show itself. Which means it is a copyright issue.

You would think, after all, that a press release from a ranking House committee minority member with "Commerce" in its name would be aware of copyright issues. After all, this committee oversees the FCC -- including television and internet issues -- so how could they not be aware of current imagery copyright laws?

But I wondered whether The Simpsons had actually licensed their images to the Republican Party in order to score cheap political points; or whether they were unaware of such hucksterism being perpetrated in their name. So I did a little journalistic digging.

First, I called up Fox Broadcasting. Much as lefty pundits love to hate Fox in general, the historical fact is that The Simpsons was the bedrock upon which the Fox network was built. So I thought I could get some answers from them.

I was wrong. When I asked politely to speak with Matt Groening, I was told he was too busy counting the money he made off The Simpsons Movie to be bothered. Actually, I made that up. It didn't happen. I did, however, communicate with some corporate folks, and sent them the following four questions:

(1) Have Simpsons characters been licensed to the Republican Party, or in particular, Rep. Joe Barton's office, for use in official House Energy and Commerce Press Releases?

(2) Are these images being used without your knowledge or authorization?

(3) Would you care to comment about the use of Simpsons characters by the Republican Party to defeat a children's health insurance law?

(4) Would you like to make any comment on Rep. Barton's press release itself?

I got back a very polite response, which said, in its entirety: "No comment."

No comment? That's it? Hrrmmph!

I then contacted Representative Barton's office in Washington, asking them if (since it was a press release to the public) it would be OK for me (as a member of the press) to reprint the images online which they themselves had used. I made repeated calls and sent an email, but have so far received no reply to any of these efforts by posting time. [I have noticed this chilling effect before on Republican press relations people whenever the name Huffington Post is heard, so this wasn't too surprising.]

So, this leaves us with only two possibilities. Possibility One is that Rep. Barton's people legally secured the rights to use these two images from the copyright holder (Fox) and therefore it is completely legal for me to reproduce these images here (the general rule of thumb is: anything in a press release is there for the press to actually use, meaning the issuer of the press release has done their legal homework). Possibility Two is that there is a press release on a United States House of Representatives web site -- once again, paid for by your tax dollars -- that is blatantly violating U.S. copyright law. Which they have no excuse for doing -- since they oversee parts of the internet, television, and other media.

I wonder which possibility will prove to be true. And I further wonder whether these images may soon disappear altogether from the House website, with no explanation given.

[For any internet sleuths who care to capture a cached image of the page I publicly reproduce here the full URL of their press release:


There should be two copies of this pair of images at the top of my article here -- the ones preceding all my text, and the ones within the press release text itself. The first set of images I am hosting from my server. The second set of images comes directly from the House site. If the images have disappeared from the press release text, then they were actually copyright violations, which have since been erased.]

I personally have come to the conclusion that these images are being pirated by the GOP. Consider the fact that there is no "copyright" statement, no © symbol, indeed no image credits at all within the press release. This is highly unusual, it should be noted, and points to image piracy. But until they have been taken off the House server by Rep. Barton, they are part of a valid public press release -- and therefore I am entirely within my rights to reproduce them here.

If this sounds like a clarion call to the phone lines for all Simpsons fans, that's exactly what it is. Representative Barton can be reached at his Washington office at (202) 225-2002. I heartily encourage all true Simpsons fans to contact Barton's office, and let him know exactly what you feel about Simpsons characters being abused for political purposes -- to help defeat children's health care, no less.


Since I couldn't get better than a "no comment" out of Fox, or out of Barton's office, I decided to go to the source. I called up both C. Montgomery Burns and Mayor Quimby and asked them about the use of their images for such political purposes. I leave you with the (unedited) transcript of both of these calls:


Q: Mr. Burns, I am a correspondent for the Huffington Post and I would like to ask you about your image being used by Republican Joe Burton in a press release issued about the SCHIP children's health care law. Have you authorized such use of your image?

BURNS: I certainly have not! I get paid a healthy honorarium for every usage of my daguerreotype. My lawyers will sue the pants off this two-bit politician!

Q: But aren't you a Republican? Wouldn't you want your image used to advance Republican causes?

BURNS: Party loyalty only goes so far. Do you know how much money and power I had to give up because of that "so-called Republican" Theodore Roosevelt and his "trust-busting" obsession?!?

Q: So you admit you have not authorized this use of your image?

BURNS: I am going to transfer you to my legal department, and you will repeat everything you've told me to them, in preparation of my massive impending lawsuit.... Smithers!! What button do I press to transfer a call?

At this point in the telephone interview, I was inadvertently cut off.

So I called up Mayor Quimby....

Q: Have you authorized House Republicans to use your image in a press release about SCHIP on their official website?

"DIAMOND" JOE QUIMBY: Those funds for Iraqi reconstruction were all... er... spent as they should have been in Iraq and... er, uh... nobody can prove anything different!

Q: Uh, that's not what I was asking. Have you authorized your image to be used in a negative political press release by House Republicans?

QUIMBY: House Republicans? Good Lord! The... er... kickback check must have bounced! No comment, do you hear me? No comment!!

At this point Quimby slammed down the phone, and subsequent repeated attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

So while I still strongly suspect that the usage of these two images is in blatant violation of copyright law, it seems I have no actual proof. Which is why I urge every true Simpsons fan to call Representative Burton and ask him yourself:

"Did you get permission to use these images? Or are you engaged in a conspiracy to break U.S. copyright law?"

That number, again, was: (202) 225-2002.

[For those of you still wondering, everything in this article is 100% true, with the following exceptions: The press release information and the calls made to Fox and Rep. Barton's office are all accurately reported here. The only satire I added myself was the Matt Groening quote (totally fictional) and everything which follows the subtitle "UPDATE". Just to be crystal clear.]

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

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