Parody Songs and Lawsuits | Of Interest To Aspiring Jesters
The subject of parody and Free Speech is on my mind this morning, since Kathy Griffin got suspended from Twitter today for mocking its new steward-in-CEO-chair Elon Musk. For a fact, dozens of Twitter accounts have taken to impersonating Musk and taking the piss out of him since his strong-arm bully buy-out of Twitter. It's just that Kathy Griffin, wise in history, designates herself as a court jester and makes a point of crossing lines drawn by those in power.
That's what jesters are supposed to do. It is an important function of society. Remember when everybody else was hating on newly "elected" president Donald Trump, but Kathy Griffin alone got grief for posting this parody image?
Yet we have clear prior precedent in the case of a homeowner who hung a Trump dummy from his front yard tree, as if the former president were being lynched - ironically long before Trump's own supporters stormed the capital with stated, heavily-intended plans to give the same treatment to former vice president Mike Pence. Police responded to complaints about the homeowner with the macabre statement on Trump, saying that the First Amendment protected his right to express an opinion.
Isn't this an interesting time in history?
As an instructive course to anyone with a musical talent whom is contemplating an edgy parody song, let's visit some marked musical parody cases and how they played out. I figure with the current political storm of doo-doo falling on all our heads about now, we could all use a refresher about where the lines are drawn, and where they need to be erased.
2 Live Crew "Pretty Woman"
Themselves no stranger to controversy, 2 Live Crew released a parody of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman." 2 Live Crew's song "Pretty Woman" was the subject of a lawsuit from the company owning Orbison's song catalog copyright, claiming infringement. Court ruled in favor of 2 Live Crew, saying that fair use provided for the degree of parody they went for.
We're going to see a lot of "Fair Use vs. Parody" cases here, but bear in mind that these lawsuits are often brought by butt-hurt business executives who can't take a joke. The First Amendment protects said joke, so the butt-hurt executive starts looking for some other excuse to use the law to harass and silence the joking party. Nevertheless, these cases are instructive to show the exact degree that legal precedent upholds freedom of speech. The lawsuit, 1994's Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., has been cited often as an important landmark legal ruling.
Beastie Boys "Girls"
In a surprise twist, this is a reverse-lawsuit against Beastie Boys, who objected to their song "Girls" being used ironically in a parody crafted by a toy company marketing STEM / engineering toys to girls. The toy company, GoldieBlox, released the parody song in a commercial for their female-empowering toy line, then the band contacted them with some misgivings. Apparently fearing a lawsuit, GoldieBlox beat them to the bench and filed first, seeking a court order to use the song in their parody. Beastie Boys then counter-sued.
Is it hard to settle your sympathies on one side of this fight, dear readers? Well then good for you! On the one hand, Beastie Boys aimed their counter-suit more towards not wishing their music to be used in any commercial advertising, rather than countering the message. On the other hand, "Girls" is a misogynistic song, and a clap-back is well deserved. The dust settled from these lawsuits with the outcome that Beastie Boys won, GoldieBlox had to withdraw their commercial, and GoldieBlox made a charity donation of the Beastie Boys' choice. Pretty amicable settlement.
The Beatles "Let It Be"
This is probably the last story you expected to come up here, but yes, technically speaking, it happened. The license-holders of the Beatles' song catalog, Associated Communications Corporation, sued The Children's Television Workshop over a Sesame Street parody of the Beatles' "Let It Be," a song called "Letter B."
As the linked source notes, this recent legal action occurred with no input from any surviving Beatles members. Paul McCartney himself made a public statement that he had no problem with the song. In yet another strange twist, the lawsuit was not concluded by the time the late Michael Jackson had purchased the Beatles' song catalog. Jackson had no interest in continuing the lawsuit and settled with The Children's Television Workshop for a mere $50.
Had this dragged out to a judgment, what can we speculate would be the outcome? It's hard to say; the song is clearly a parody, but if you watch the Muppet video, it takes some pains to shift notes and keys slightly off from the original Beatles' song, while also showing four puppets with mop-top haircuts. Tough call; but I would guess that a judge would have found in CTW's favor.
Aqua's "Barbie Girl"
We finally have a case where an artist was sued for the subject of the song, rather than being sued for a bogus copyright claim. Aqua's 1997 song "Barbie Girl" took the popular children's toy line to task for its reinforcement of gendered stereotypes and promotion of feckless consumer values. Mattel, makers of Barbie, had no sense of humor about this. They sued Aqua's label MCA Records for trademark infringement instead of copyright infringement.
This ended up going nowhere. The court threw out the lawsuit, stating that "Mattel’s statements were non-actionable hyperbole," and siding with Aqua as the song was deemed 1st Amendment compliant parody, "poking fun at both her and the plastic values she represents." Mattel, undaunted, appealed, and was shut down even harder! Bench quote from Judge Alex Kozinski: "The parties are advised to chill."
Grease - The Entire Musical
So what happens when you parody an entire musical? We know there's parodies of whole movies out there, from Mel Brooks' Spaceballs to Ezio Greggio's Silence of the Hams. But a sketch comedy group Sketchworks once released a parody of the musical film Grease, itself, as "Vape: The Musical" and got sued about it. They got hit with a 2019 cease-and-desist from the theatrical division of music publisher Concord, owners of Grease's copyright.
Despite Concord trying to back out of the suit, the judge this time forced the suit to go through in order to establish a clear ruling. Once again, Fair Use and the First Amendment won out, with the judge ruling that Vape: The Musical was a legally defensible parody of Grease.
Bonus Buck: Weird Al Yankovic "I'll Sue Ya"
Obviously, Weird Al Yankovic is the most prominent name in parody music. He has avoided needless litigation by having a policy to always show original artists the courtesy of requesting permission to parody a song, even if he technically doesn't need it. Indeed, among the few times Weird Al has seen the inside of a courtroom was when he sued Sony for music royalties and got a $5 million settlement. The one time he actually got into a tiff with Coolio over his "Amish Paradise" parody, Coolio later cooled down; it never saw court.
But did you know that Weird Al also released a parody song in the style of Rage Against the Machine, which was also a parody of frivolous lawsuit culture? That's meta-upon-meta parody! Find "I'll Sue Ya" in the Weird Al Wiki, which itself is quite the freaky rabbit-hole to spend a few clicks.