Parodies: living dangerously
There are plenty of examples of parodies being taken down because they infringed copyright. Here are a few of them (if you have more that you think we should list here, get in touch).
This summer Greenpeace made a parody of Volkswagon's recent 'Star Wars' themed commercial. The original featured the original Star Wars score, with a child dressed like Darth Vader trying to use “The Force” to move various household objects. Greenpeace's response pitched the Darth Vader against a band of young Jedi, and was designed to highlight the apparent lobbying by German car manufacturers against stronger CO2 emission laws in Europe.
The video quickly became the most shared 'ad' in the world. But as momentum behind the campaign gathered, the parody was ordered to be taken down from YouTube by Star Wars’ copyright owners LucasFilm. Greenpeace challenged the takedown, which had inadvertantly blocked Greenpeace International's account. After more than two weeks of suspension, YouTube put their videos back up. Not every user making parodies will be lucky enough to have Greenpeace's legal team, and the downtime represents unrecoverable lost momentum.
A now infamous example of UK artists' parody problem is the song and video “Newport State of Mind”. Created by two songwriters and a video maker in the UK, the song replaced references to New York in the original, performed by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, with references to Newport. The video became an online sensation soon after it was released. However, it was taken down following a complaint by the original's songwriters, represented by the music publisher EMI Music Publishing Limited, disappearing from YouTube. The persistence of the video's fans means the song can still be found on YouTube. Why should a talented video maker or musician be at the mercy of the good will of the copyright owner, the efficiency of video hosts' take-down service or the persistence or defiance of their fans?
Regular parody creator "Eclectech" parodied the James Blunt's song "You're Beautiful". This took the form of a game that involved throwing tomatoes at a characature of James Blunt, who was singing a song called “You’re Gullible”. The creator of the video received legal threats, which led to the take down of the soundtrack. Visitors are now encouraged to play the tomato throwing game while the (now) mute figure mouths the song and the lyrics appear as subtitles.
The German film Der Untergang (Downfall) was parodied by users around the world. Constantin Films, the German company that made the movie, launched a campaign to have all these parodies removed from YouTube. Downfall probably gained a great deal (commercially speaking) from the immense popularity of users' viral clips. But Constantin Films failed to see the funny side.
A parody has to link to the original in some way - to its author, subject, values, genre and more. Some of the videos using the scene from Downfall are not a parody of the film or the scene or its subject. However, many of the Downfall videos did comment on the original or its subject. Yet no such distinction was made in the blanket takedown campaign. Of course, once again the users' persistence means that most of the videos can still be found online.
Comedy sketch writers Mother's Best Child created an animated short called 'The Spirit of the Games'. Dropping the Olympic mascots, Wenlock and Mendeville, into the centre of one of the summer's riot hot spots, Dan from MBC told us that the 'first intention was to make people laugh. But the glaringly obvious hypocrisy in staging a billion pound event at a time of austerity and social unrest was a satirical gift.'
Having accumulated over got over 90,000 views, becoming the number 1 comedy video on YouTube and number 3 on Reddit that day, Mother's Best Child told us the video had to be taken down following legal threats from the Olympics legal team, who cited copyright infringement. This is a clear case of copyright being used to inhibit legitimate critique of an event with a significant impact on the public. We have been in touch with the Olympic press office for a response but have yet to receive a reply.
Some parodies live dangerously
We've heard from lots of campaigning groups and others that they have sometimes ignored legal advice, taken risks and published parodies anyway. These parodies live in a state of legal uncertainty, remaining accessible only because the copyright owners decide not to have them removed. Here are some examples of highly effective parodies that currently live in this state of legal uncertainty. Many others, of course, are never published because campaign groups choose not to take the legal risk.
Tom Scott created a parody site 'Preparing for Emergencies' in response to a Government website of the same name. The aim of the joke was what he saw as the promotion of vague paranoia for political ends. About 12 hours after going live, he received a response from the Government asking him to remove the site. He refused, offering a link to the original Government site. 'Preparing for Emergencies' is still live.
Church Action for Poverty launched a successful campaign against BrightHouse, a high-cost lender. BrightHouse’s slogan is “Your Weekly Payment Store”. Church Action used the BrightHouse logo and colours and changed the slogan slightly to “Your weekly over payment store”. Not only did the parody of the logo and brand not get taken down, but BrightHouse was persuaded to attend the roundtable meetings with customers and Office of Fair Trading towards drafting a code for responsible lending.
ActionAid has created a few campaigns parodying major companies' apparent unethical business practices, despite having sought legal advice that highlighted the risks of infringement and its consequences. They parodied Tesco’s slogan “Every Little Helps”, asking consumers to send 5p to Tesco using a postcard on the ActionAid website with the slogan “Every Action Helps”.
They launched a similar campaign against ASDA, asking them to pay employees a living wage for clothes made in India. The ASDA logo “ASDA Price Guarantee” was transformed into “ASDA Poverty Guarantee”. They also used SABMiller’s famous beer brand Grolsch, using the image of the Grolsch bottle and the brand font to write Schtop. Using the slogan “Tell them to Schtop”, they collected signatures petitioning MPs ahead of the G-20 summit, asking them to help stop multinationals from exploiting tax loopholes in developing countries.
For the campaign 'Airbrushed for Change', Clifford Singer created the website MyDavidCameron.com to parody the Conservative party’s re-election campaign posters of 2010 with the slogan “Year of Change”. According to Singer, the website, inviting people to create spoofs on the original poster, took off with more than 90,000 unique visitors in the first two weeks alone. The posters are a powerful piece of political speech and would have been impossible to create without infringing copyright in the original.