LEGAL ISSUES CONCERNING PARODY |BACK TO MAIN|

 
Parody
1 : a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule

-WWWebster Dictionary

Using copyrighted content in parody
Essay written by Borgus.com

Parodies are comedic imitations of someone else's work, usually paying respect to them.  According to law.com parody is "the humorous use of an existing song, play, or writing which changes the words to give farcical and ironic meaning." Law.com says that court decisions have favored parodies and that "there is a free speech issue involved in these decisions since parodies traditionally have social and political significance."

Parody has long been a viable part of entertainment. It allows for comment, criticism, and humor of an existing work.  Comedy sketches poking fun at an existing TV show or a popular song have proved to be important forms of art.  Special laws have been upheld to allow artists to freely perform parody to itís fullest to avoid copyright issues.

For a further examination of the misunderstood purposes of copyright law, please visit the excellent article by Lydia Pallas Loren: 'The Purpose of Copyright'

When producing parodies it is acceptable under US law to use bits of the original show to enhance the comedic nature of your new creation.  This includes music and other identifying elements.  It does not violate copyright law, as long as it doesn't damage or harm the reputation of the original or try to pose as the original.

Borgus.com has produced many audio parodies in years past, including a Tom Brokaw parody in which the NBC Nightly News theme was used in the opening of the skit.  Usage of that music was possible because of the "fair use doctrine" of the Copyright Revision Act of 1976, and based on the US Supreme Court ruling in 1994.

Fair use doctrine
Under the "fair use doctrine" it is acceptable according to the US Supreme Court of 1994 in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. In this case the court states "Parody, like other comment and criticism, may claim fair use."  This case involved the parody song of "Pretty Woman" where 2 Live Crew used the song's opening melody and changed various parts of the lyrics.  The court ruled in favor of 2 Live Crew with a unanimous decision that their song was acceptable.

Applying this case to spoken parody skits, the court's unanimous decision on this issue holds.  Section 107 of the Copyright Revision Act permits limited copying of copyrighted work for these purposes. US Congress (HOUSE REPORT NO. 94-1476) mentions that fair use includes "use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied..."

It is the very nature of parody that allowed us to use the NBC theme.  Quoting the opinion of the Supreme Court, "Parody needs to mimic an original to make its point, and so has some claim to use the creation of its victim's (or collective victims') imagination.." and "...it can provide social benefit, by shedding light on an earlier work, and, in the process, creating a new one. We thus line up with the courts that have held that parody, like other comment or criticism, may claim fair use under 107."

Necessary identification
Using NBC's news theme to make fun of the show is necessary in my piece because it identifies the show to the audience.  It would not be effective if the Tom Brokaw characterization were speaking over a generic music bed.  The Supreme Court says this sort of copying is necessary and "...makes for this recognition is quotation of the original's most distinctive or memorable features, which the parodist can be sure the audience will know. Once enough has been taken to assure identification, how much more is reasonable will depend, say, on the extent to which the song's overriding purpose and character is to parody the original or, in contrast, the likelihood that the parody may serve as a market substitute for the original. But using some characteristic features cannot be avoided." Obviously the Borgus parody is not causing NBC to lose profits.

The Tom Brokaw Parody is a different issue than taking a song and changing the words. This is a "talk-parody" piece similar to Stan Freberg's 1960's Dragnet parodies.  Freberg used the Dragnet radio theme in his St. George and the Dragonet parody. Many other prominent artists throughout radio, television, and music history have used pre-existing identification, including Saturday Night Live on NBC.  Sometimes when the amount of copyrighted use is extreme or questionable, permission has been obtained from the originator.  But its clear that the law doesn't require it in cases of direct parody.

An artist has full rights to use reasonable care in producing parody.  If clips of the original are used for any other purpose than parody of the show being jested, then it becomes illegal.  If the NBC News theme was used in song unrelated to news, then, and only then does it violate copyright laws.

Under common law, the fair use doctrine, and the decisions of the Supreme Court, use of copyrighted material in parody is necessary, acceptable, and legal.



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