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Why The Obama Big Bird Ad’s Going Bye-Bye

Since last week’s Presidential debate, Big Bird’s eight-foot high profile has grown even larger.  It started with a comment that Republican contender, Gov. Mitt Romney, made to the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS , about cutting federal funding for PBS programs, including Lehrer’s own NewsHour and Sesame Street. Mr. Romney specifically singled out Big Bird for the budget ax.  Thereafter, Big Bird, who claims he’s normally in bed well before 11:30 p.m., made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update to address the issue.  Being non-partisan, however, Mr. Bird declined to make any political pronouncements, stating, “No, I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

Unfortunately, he’s managed to do so, courtesy of a TV ad from President Obama’s campaign.  Prominently featuring Big Bird and the familiar green Sesame Street  sign, the ad has a satiric quality to it that one doesn’t typically see in Presidential campaign ads. It seemed, at least to me, more like one of the fake ads produced by Saturday Night Live. But it’s real and Sesame Workshop, the company that owns the rights to Sesame Street and its many characters, made it known that they are not amused.

Sesame Workshop’s demand that the Obama campaign cease using the Big Bird ad has been widely publicized.  But you might well ask, “doesn’t the President’s campaign have a First Amendment right to use Big Bird?” After all, “political speech” is the very core of our right to free speech.  And wouldn’t the use of Big Bird constitute “fair use” under copyright law? Wouldn’t it be considered a protected “parody”?

Well, probably not. Let’s first look at “fair use,” something that’s often misunderstood. Much ink has been spilled in recent years over so-called “fair use rights.” Actually, “fair use,” which is codified in Section 107 of the Copyright Act, is a defense to copyright infringement – not a “right.” And one of the purposes of “fair use” is to balance first amendment speech rights with copyright law’s limited monopoly.  Section 107 does state that use of a work may be “fair use” when used “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research….” Moreover, the courts have repeatedly held that there are no black line rules for determining fair use and that each decision is to be made on a case-by-case basis through an analysis of Section 107’s four factors. These include the “the purpose and character of the use”, such as whether it’s a “commercial use” and how much of the underlying work is used in the allegedly infringing work.  More recent cases also look to see if the use is “transformative,” meaning that the underlying work is not merely reproduced but is used in a new way.

One thing’s clear: just because it’s a political ad doesn’t mean you can use someone else’s copyrighted work.  The First Amendment guarantees free speech, but it doesn’t give you the right to freely use someone else’s speech.  A few years ago, Joe Walsh of The Eagles sued Joe Walsh the Congressional candidate over the use of one of his songs in a TV ad.  Many composers won’t allow their works to be used for political purposes. For example, Aaron Copland’s estate won’t allow the use of the iconic “Fanfare for the Common Man” to be used in political campaigns. A few years ago, when I was at Boosey & Hawkes, I was able to slap Comedy Central on the wrist for an unauthorized use of the Copland anthem on The Daily Show that was discovered by my staff. The result: a hefty license fee and some tickets to a taping of the show.

So what about the Big Bird ad? The use of the clip of Gov. Romney from the Presidential debate is likely  a fair use. It’s a short clip of a public, newsworthy event and the ad is commenting on Gov. Romney’s views and criticizing them.  With respect to Big Bird, it’s a bit more tricky.  He’s not the subject of the criticism, but his name and likeness is being used to criticize Gov. Romney’s statements.  And there’s an awful lot of Big Bird in the ad.

But, isn’t it a “transformative” use? After all, parody is one of the uses that may be considered transformative.  But, sometimes a parody is not a parody in the legal sense. The 1994 Supreme Court case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. (involving 2 Live Crew’s unauthorized use the Roy Orbison hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman” in one of its songs) and many subsequent cases, hold that a new work is a protected parody under copyright law only when it is commenting on, i.e., parodying, the underlying original work.  In the 2 Live Crew case, the Supreme Court found that the rap group’s song did, in fact, comment upon the Orbison hit.  In the Obama ad, it appears that the parody is directed not at Big Bird (the underlying copyrighted work), but at Gov. Romney. That would tend to defeat the parody defense. For example, it’s not a legally protected “parody” if you take a popular song and merely change the lyrics to comment on some topical issues of the day as opposed to scorning the song itself. But what about Weird Al Yankovic? Actually, Weird Al gets permission from the copyright owners of the songs he “parodies.”  And, as the Supreme Court noted in the 2 Live Crew case, the parody doesn’t have to be either good or funny.

So, it’s murky at best under copyright law as to whether the Obama campaign can use Big Bird in its ad without permission.  But it doesn’t end there. Remember the “Sesame Street” street sign? Sesame Workshop has a trademark in that famous logo.  Not surprisingly, there’s a “fair use” provision in the federal trademark act (that’s Section 33(b)(4) of the Lanham Act for you footnote freaks) and the courts construing it typically consider three factors, including whether the use of the mark suggests sponsorship or endorsement by the owner of the trademark.  Under that test, it looks like Sesame Workshop has a legitimate gripe about the use of its trademark “endorsing” the President’s position.

And remember, I mentioned the use of Big Bird’s “name and likeness.” That’s typically an area of law known as the right of publicity, which allows celebrities, often very dead ones, to make lots of money off of their name and likeness and to prevent others from cashing in without their consent.  However, unlike copyright and trademark, the right of publicity is a matter of state law, not federal law, and every state’s law is different. And while I know of cases where actors portraying fictional characters have successfully made publicity claims (e.g., George Wendt and John Ratzenberger suing over a “Norm” and “Cliff” robot impersonators), I’m not aware of any right of publicity cases involving characters such as the likes of Big Bird, Mickey Mouse or Spiderman.

So, the Big Bird ad, on intellectual property law grounds, is likely to fly the coop. However, that’s not why it’s going bye-bye. While I’m sure the lawyers working for the Obama campaign know that they’re not on solid ground, the Sesame Workshop folks aren’t likely to file a lawsuit. For one, Sesame Workshop’s gotten a lot of favorable free publicity.  But more importantly, the Big Bird brouhaha has a shelf life that will last only until the October 11 Vice Presidential debate and I suspect both sides know this and don’t want to spend a lot of money fighting over something so ephemeral.  Even if there weren’t any legal issues, I’d be very surprised if the Big Bird ad continues to air after this week, by which time it’ll be as fresh as last week’s leftover chicken.

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