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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!