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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.

The Good Wife and the Parody Defense

Imagine my surprise when I tuned in to yesterday’s episode of The Good Wife, expecting the usual sexual and political intrigue and found myself in the middle of a copyright infringement case that seemed to have elements of the Supreme Court’s  decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (the case where the high court held that 2 Live Crew’s use of the Roy Orbison hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman” was a parody of that 1960s classic), Glee and the recent furor over the Goldiblox ad using The Beastie Boys’ song, Girls. What fun!

Although the technicalities of these types of cases were somewhat glossed over for dramatic effect, things like “parody”, “transformative use”, “derivative copyright” and “compulsory license” were bandied about in the middle of the battle between Alicia Florrick’s client and that of her nemesis, former lover and head of her former firm, Will Gardner.

The fictional case involved a duo that had done a “cover” of sorts of a rap tune where they kept the original rap lyrics but wrote a new melody for the song, “transforming” it into a bouncy pop tune. This version was, in turn, “covered” by yet another artist and was broadcast on a fictional Glee-like show.

Now, those of you who’ve read my previous blog posts both on here and on ScoreStreet, are already familiar with these concepts. But, for you fans of The Good Wife who want to know what all the fuss was about as these legal terms went whizzing by, here’s a brief explanation of some of what was going on in the case where one party was portrayed by F. Murray Abraham (who won an Oscar for his role as the composer, Salieri, in the film, Amadeus), and where the judge was Dominic Chianese, Uncle Junior of The Sopranos  fame and someone who released a recording of Italian songs. Kudos to the casting department for the inside jokes!

The manager for the budding pop duo spoke about getting a “compulsory” license. This, is in fact,  known in the music biz as a “mechanical” license. Typically, a record label (on behalf of its recording artist) obtains this license from the copyright owner of the song to be “covered,” which is usually a music publisher. It is a compulsory license under Section 115 of the Copyright Act in that once a song has been commercially recorded and released, any artist can “cover” that song and the copyright owner  must grant permission (hence, the “compulsory” license), provided that the artist (or more likely, their label) pays the “statutory” rate, which is currently 9.1 cents unit distributed for a song that is 5 minutes or less in duration. So, if an artist sells 100,000 downloads of a song that’s less than 5 minutes long, the record label owes the publisher $9,100.00.

Compulsory mechanical licenses only give the artist rights to make an audio-only recording. And while an artist under the mechanical license can arrange the covered song to his own style, he can’t make fundamental changes such as material alterations to the song’s lyrics. The right to make other uses of the song requires additional rights – as was noted during the show. This is where this “derivative copyright” stuff comes in.

A copyright owner has a “bundle of rights” including the right to make and distribute copies and to create – or authorize others to create – “derivative works.” What’s a derivative work? You can look it up in Section 101 of the Copyright Act, but arrangements, translations, adaptations and the like are derivative works. For example, making a film from a novel is creating a derivative work of that novel. So is making a video of a song or doing a new arrangement of a song, such as keeping the lyrics but writing an entirely new melody to them, as was done in The Good Wife. Such derivative uses are often viewed as being “transformative,” in that the new work has recast and re-purposed the original work.

Most derivative uses of a copyrighted work need to be authorized or licensed by the copyright owner of the underlying work. For example, if a producer wants to use a hit song in an upcoming TV show, they need to get a “synchronization” license from the copyright owner of the song (typically, a music publisher) and permission from the copyright owner of the recording of that song (typically, the artist’s label).

However, there is an exception under the doctrine of “fair use” for a “parody” of a work. An artist may use another’s copyrighted work without permission if the new work  is commenting in some manner on the underlying original, as was held to be the case with 2 Live Crew and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”  Such a “parody”  is said to be a “transformative” use of the work, and under certain circumstances, no permission would be required and the use, even without permission, would not constitute copyright infringement.

But there’s a catch:  what was not made clear in last night’s episode, probably for dramatic purposes, is that in order to have a fair use “parody” of the work, one can only use so much of the underlying work as to “conjure” the original. One cannot simply take the entire underlying work and use it wholesale, such as taking an entire lyric and writing a new tune to it. In the “Oh, Pretty Woman” case, 2 Live Crew only used a portion of the original song and the rest was original material, thereby creating a “transformative” use of the Orbison hit. Got that?

Who knew that copyright and music licensing could be so dramatic!