(CN) - A politician likely violated EU copyright law with a parody of a 1961 cartoon that mocked his rival as a benefactor to Muslims and other minorities, Europe's highest court ruled Wednesday.
"The Compulsive Benefactor" or De Wilde Weldoener
is a book in the cartoon series Suske en Wiske
. The book's cover depicts the title character in white robes tossing coins and surrounded by people.
Johan Deckmyn, an activist in the Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang, handed out calendars that parodied the children's book, replacing the Benefactor with the mayor of Ghent, tossing money to people of color and wearing traditional Muslim dress.
The family of cartoonist Willy Vandersteen sued Deckmyn and Vlaams Belang's funding arm in a Belgian court, claiming the calendars infringed their copyright. Deckmyn called his version of the cartoon a political caricature and therefore protected by the parody exception in EU copyright law.
At the request of the Belgian appeals court, the European Court of Justice weighed in on the case to clarify what constitutes a parody.
In its ruling on Wednesday, the Luxembourg-based court held that, while Deckmyn's calendars might be considered parody, Vandersteen's heirs may have an equally legitimate interest in preventing the original work from being associated with the calendar's offensive message.
"It should be noted that, according to Vandersteen, in the drawing at issue the characters who in the original work were picking up the coins were replaced by people wearing veils and people of color, that drawing conveys a discriminatory message which has the effect of associating the protected work with such a message," the court wrote.
"If that is indeed the case, which it is for the national court to assess, attention should be drawn to the principle of non-discrimination based on race, color and ethnic origin, as was specifically defined in EU law implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin and confirmed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union," the court continued.
"In those circumstances, holders of rights such as Vandersteen have, in principle, a legitimate interest in ensuring that the work protected by copyright is not associated with such a message," the court concluded, handing the task of determining that back to the Belgian court.
On its website, Vlaams Belang quotes Deckmyn as saying the calendar portrayed Ghent mayor Daniel Termont as "a wild benefactor to non-Ghent at the expense of quality of life and at the expense of the Ghent taxpayer."
The prank played well, with more than 2,000 of the calendars handed out, according to the party's website.
Nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise across the EU, fueled early on by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and subsequent public transit bombings in Madrid and London.
In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten provoked an international public relations crisis by printing cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, an act many Muslims viewed as highly blasphemous.
The cartoons led to boycotts of Danish products and violent protests throughout the Muslim world, with more than 200 deaths reported.