Copyright Protections Have Limitations When Applied To Parody

You already know that violating copyright protection is illegal. But do you know exactly what that means? Do you know exactly where the line is drawn between copyrighted materials and what is considered “fair use” of those materials? Fair use is the assumption that even copyrighted materials can be reproduced in some fashion within reason. For example, one writer might quote word for word another writer’s work for a number of reasons, including teaching, researching, or critiquing. 

One 1994 Supreme Court copyright case — Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. — established that certain forms of artistic criticism can be considered fair use as well. What might one consider artistic criticism? Parody!

The case arose when a rap music group called “2 Live Crew” wrote a song called “Pretty Woman.” The name might sound familiar. It was a blatant parody of Roy Orbison’s hit “Oh, Pretty Woman.” In fact, it so flagrantly parodied the source material that 2 Live Crew’s manager actually requested a license to Orbison’s song to avoid copyright infringement litigation down the road.

The license was firmly denied.

2 Live Crew decided to move ahead with licensing and releasing the parody anyway, which resulted in the inevitable suit — after the rap group sold hundreds of thousands of copies of the song, of course. 

One year after the parody was released, the company having the authority to grant or deny the rap group a license — Acuff-Rose — slammed 2 Live Crew’s record company with a copyright infringement lawsuit. 2 Live Crew’s record company was named “Luke Skyywalker Records,” and we’re not even going to attempt to unpack the irony.

Part of the conundrum put before the District Court wasn’t necessarily whether or not parody could be considered fair use, but whether or not commercially successful parody could be considered fair use. 

You might parody someone else’s art, but should you profit from the parodied version? The District Court’s eventual answer was that, yes, you legally could. But what followed was a convoluted legal mess. The Court of Appeals decided to reverse the District Court’s decision, ruling that the parody was an “unfair use” because it pilfered the “heart” of the original song. (And the commercial success of the parody probably had something to do with it, too.)

The matter was therefore bounced to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed the appeal to uphold the original ruling. Long story short, if you want to make money off of someone else’s work, the easiest way to get away with it is by parodying the source material! 

Check out the parodied version:


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