Satan is getting a bad rap in Hollywood.
At least that’s one of the claims in an unusual copyright infringement lawsuit that the Satanic Temple has brought against Netflix and Warner Bros.
The group is seeking at least $50 million in damages in a lawsuit that is raising eyebrows — and not only because of the nature of the claims. The case could even change how Hollywood uses cultural symbols in films and TV shows, some legal experts say.
“It’s definitely not a frivolous lawsuit,” said Christopher Beall, a first amendment and media lawyer at Fox Rothschild. “What is happening here is the fulcrum of the tension between free speech and copyright.”
The dispute centers around the temple’s statue called “Baphomet With Children,” that depicts two kids looking at the goat-headed deity in awe.
The temple says it commissioned the statue so it could present a counterpoint to a statue of the Ten Commandments that was displayed in the Oklahoma Capitol. In 2015, the Ten Commandments statue was removed after the state's Supreme Court ruled it violated the Constitution.
Since then, the temple has pushed for it to be displayed on publicly owned land where other religious works are located, in its mission for all religions to be treated equally.
The Satanic Temple, a Salem, Mass.-based organization, describes itself as a political activism group that promotes certain beliefs such as free will and religious tolerance. The group argues in the complaint that Satan isn’t an evil being, but rather “a literary figure symbolic of the eternal rebel in opposition.” It invokes John Milton’s depiction of Satan in the poem “Paradise Lost” as an angel who rebelled against God.
The temple, which has 100,000 members worldwide, says the Netflix show's depiction of the statue is hurting its reputation.
“(The statue) is the most readily recognized symbol to our organization,” Lucien Greaves, the temple’s co-founder, said in an interview. “To have something like a Netflix show that might have wider availability to anybody than anything we produced, really threatens to all at once eclipse all the work we’ve done up until this moment.”
Netflix referred a media request to Warner Bros., which produces “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” Warner Bros. declined to comment.
On the Netflix show, which debuted on Oct. 26, main character Sabrina Spellman (played by Kiernan Shipka) is half-witch and half-human and is conflicted over whether to join the Church of Night and leave her human life behind. The episodic program, released last month, is a decidedly darker take on the Archie Comics character than the popular 1990s series, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” that featured Melissa Joan Hart and a talking cat. In this version, a witch sacrifices herself and other people in the coven devour her flesh.
The Netflix version of Sabrina attends the Academy of Unseen Arts, which features a statue eerily similar to the temple’s copyrighted “Baphomet With Children.”
“Defendants’ prominent use of it as the central focal point of the school associated with evil, cannibalism and possibly murder is injurious to the Satanic Temple’s business,” the lawsuit says.
Namely, it might hurt the temple’s future plans to have its statue displayed in other public areas if people associate it with “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” The church is asking the court to bar the show from using similar images of the statue in the future.
The Satanic Temple says it believes it has a strong copyright case because of the unique portrayal of Baphomet in its statue. The image is based on an 1856 illustration from occult historian Eliphas Levi, which inspired the version of the devil found on tarot cards and is in the public domain. That depiction of Baphomet has a “Sabbatic Goat’s head placed on the body of Lilith, a figure from Jewish mysticism sometimes considered the goddess of the night,” the lawsuit states.
Key differences between Levi’s illustration and the temple’s “Baphomet with Children” statue is that Baphomet lacks female breasts in the updated version and is surrounded by two children, the lawsuit says.
The temple says it registered the statue with the U.S. Copyright Office. And the similarity with the image depicted in the Sabrina series could create legal problems for Netflix.
“Because it’s copying things that are unique to this new work, that’s where they get in trouble,” said attorney Jesse Saivar, head of the intellectual property and technology department at Greenberg Glusker.
But some lawyers think the temple’s lawsuit won’t get far because they believe Netflix and Warner Bros. will argue that their use of the statue falls under “fair use,” that they are depicting Baphomet in a way that transforms the meaning associated with the statue from the Satanic Temple.
"I don’t think they have a prayer,” said Neville Johnson, a founding partner of law firm Johnson & Johnson of the Satanic Temple’s argument. “It’s a first amendment fundamental right.”
For example, a judge ruled against Mattel’s 1999 copyright infringement lawsuit against Utah artist Tom Forsythe, who had taken photos of Barbie in different positions, including one of a nude Barbie underneath a kitchen mixer called “Missionary Barbie.” The judge determined that the artist’s intent of parodying Barbie was protected under the First Amendment.
Lisa Soper, a production designer with the “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” called the show’s statue’s likeness to the Satanic Temple’s version “a coincidence” in an interview with news media organization Vice.
“It's no different from... any other of the mass amounts of iterations of him that have been around,” Soper told Vice.
Some observers are also skeptical over how much the new Sabrina series can further harm the Satanic Temple’s reputation, considering that in pop culture, Satan is usually portrayed as evil. People may already associate Baphomet with issues like cannibalism, even though the temple says that’s not part of its values.
“Most likely, people may rightly or wrongly already have that impression,” Saivar said.
But the Satanic Temple has made efforts to become more mainstream. The temple has spurred After School Satan Clubs to open nationwide to counteract Christian-based groups in schools.
Greaves says it was important for the Satanic Temple to file the lawsuit because, after all, “if we don’t take us seriously, who else is going to?”