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GoldieBlox and the Beastie Boys: Parody, Piracy or Publicity Ploy

This article was originally posted on the ScoreStreet blog on November 27, 2013.

In case you’ve not tuned into the TV news, the blogosphere or social media in the past couple of days, you may have missed the uproar over a small company’s use of the Beastie Boys’ song Girls in a YouTube video ad that quickly went viral. Goldieblox, which describes itself as “building games for girls to inspire future engineers,” produced a video with young girls using the company’s products in a Rube Goldbergesque contraption. This was set to a re-recording of Girls, sung by young girls with the lyrics changed from the original to one of empowerment.

The Beastie Boys are well-known for refusing to allow their music to be used in commercials and it was widely reported that Adam Yauch had a provision in his will prohibiting such exploitation. So, it wasn’t surprising that Goldieblox did not seek permission to use Girls – particularly in a way that substantially altered the original.

Instead, GoldieBlox felt it was just right to file for a declaratory judgment, seeking a determination in federal court that their use of the song in the commercial did not constitute copyright infringement, claiming  “fair use” in the nature of a “parody.”  There already have been numerous blog posts analyzing the matter to varying degrees.  I simply want to use the Goldieblox – Girls situation to illustrate some fair use principles and to dispel some misconceptions.

First, there is no doubt that the use of the song by GoldieBlox without permission would constitute infringement unless there was a valid defense to the infringement. In that regard, “fair use” is not “right” as some like Larry Lessig and his acolytes have maintained. Rather, it is a defense to copyright infringement.  Moreover, there are no hard and fast rules as to what is, or is not, fair use. For example, it is not automatically a fair use to use 30-seconds or less of a recording or to copy four or fewer bars of a piece of music.  Unfortunately, what constitutes fair use has to be determined on a case-by-case basis in accordance with Section 107 of the Copyright Act, which reads as follows:

§ 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

As for “parody” being a defense to copyright infringement, that was established in the 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Campbell v. Acuff-Rose.  In that case, the band, 2 Live Crew, used a portion of the Roy Orbison hit, Oh, Pretty Woman,” in their song, Pretty Woman, despite having been refused permission by the copyright owner of Oh, Pretty Woman, Acuff-Rose Music.  In that case, the Court went through a lengthy fair-use analysis and found that 2 Live Crew’s use of Oh, Pretty Woman was “transformative” in that it did not merely reproduce and appropriate the original song.

In so doing, the Court set forth guidelines for determining whether a use would be a “parody” in the legal sense, i.e., one for which permission of the copyright owner of the parodied work would not be required. Among the criteria are 1) that only so much as is necessary to conjure up the original, parodied work was to be used and 2) that the parody must comment on the original work. In other words, it would not be a “fair use” parody to write new lyrics to an underlying song that talks about something else. That is why Weird Al gets permission for his “parodies.”  To constitute a parody protected by fair use, the “parody” need not be funny or artistically successful.

How does this apply to the GoldieBlox situation? It has been pointed out that the original Beastie Boys’ song is misogynistic and that the GoldieBlox version changes the lyrics to a message of female empowerment.  However, more than a mere conjuring of the original song was used. Basically, the whole song was used – and to shill a product, however positive the message embodied in the ad may be.

So, is the use a parody protected by fair use? You now have the tools to do your own analysis. My own view is that using substantially all of a song for an advertisement for a product should not constitute fair use. But, as I said, that determination must ultimately be decided by a federal district judge.  And as of now it seems unlikely that will happen. Apparently, GoldieBlox has changed its tune; the company uploaded a new video without music or lyrics and has issued an apology – of sorts– to the surviving members of the Beastie Boys.

Although we may not have a court decide whether the GoldieBlox use of “Girls” was parody or piracy, one thing is absolutely clear: it was a brilliant publicity ploy for the company.