Saturday, November 19, 2011

What Do You Think I Am, A Moron?

A couple of weeks ago I talked about current copyright law and I started thinking about why people still get so confused about it.  For example, is fan fiction illegal or does it fall under fair use?  What about song parodies?  Are there different standards for different media?  As it turns out, it depends.  Really clear, right? 

Weird Al has made a career out of parodying popular songs, using the music but reworking the lyrics.  The FAQ on his website explains a bit of the law and his personal ethics.  Prince has never allowed any of his works to be parodied and though Al really doesn't need his permission to do so he respects his decision.  Many years ago Al wanted to rework "Live and Let Die" as "Chicken Pot Pie" but Paul McCartney wouldn't sign off on it because of his vegetarianism and Al respected that.  He's a professional. 

Bill Watterson, the creator of "Calvin and Hobbes," has been fighting a losing battle against piracy of his images for years.  If he refused to merchandise his characters at the height of their popularity it's a safe bet he also didn't approve (and isn't getting paid for) Calvin peeing on a Ford logo or kneeling before a cross.  The messages in those images only work if you make the leap that it's bad boy Calvin doing whatever. 

Someone who never shied away from protecting his copyrights was J.D. Salinger.  He was involved in a copyright dispute with a Swedish writer when he died.  I can't find any information about it's being dropped so I'm assuming that his estate is still suing.  The book -- 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye -- has been published in the UK, which the US has copyright agreements with so it will be interesting the see how it shakes out.  The US doesn't have a copyright agreement with Iran, though, and Salinger was unable to stop the distribution of the film Pari by Dariush Mehrjui inside Iran.  An injunction was granted to keep it from being shown inside the US.  Mehrjui said that Salinger's action against him was "bewildering" but it was only if you didn't really know Salinger.

So, a couple of things to think about there.  Do artists have the moral right to object to their creations being used  in whatever way their fans want?  Or do they simply have to take whatever comes from putting their work out there?  What do you think?  As you think about it, have some Weird Al.


  1. Obviously it's complicated. For instance, fanvidding is a gray area. When I create a fanvideo, I'm not claiming the song or video as my own, but I'm rearranging video and generally leaving the music intact with credit to the original artists.

    Yeah I've heard that Prince is a real stickler. I wonder if anyone has had a "home visit" as a result of using one of HIS songs in a fanvideo, LOL!

  2. Prince, like Bob Dylan, has a really tight leash on what goes up on YouTube. At least they're both consistent. I remember the fight you had about some of your fanvids and it seemed totally ridiculous because other vidders weren't being hit for doing exactly the same thing; it was like they were specifically targeting you.

  3. Good thoughts there! Had a little think on it .. Personally I don't think so. A couple thoughts come to mind - most artists view their creations as children - once created let it live - maybe not put eloquently but you get the idea (I hope) I'm also thinking of Oscar Wilde "what's worse than being talked about, is not being talked about." Or in the music world there have been many the instances where the remix becomes more famous than the original - to mutual benefit - there will always be people who seek out the original artist for further exploration.
    Though I do have respect for Bill Watterson's fight against merchandising. Personally I avoid as much merchandise & free advertising (as I call it) if I can!! But that is my choice

  4. My main response is: I don't know how they can really stop it very effectively (apart from taking legal measures, which only means that if you want to enforce your rights, you have to maintain a lawyer on retainer). That seems to me to make it possible for a certain group (wealthy people who have already profited from their work) to protect their rights in ways that other artists can't (those who don't have the money to call in the law enforcement mechanisms). The examples you've named of people who are pursuing their rights (Dylan, Salinger) are people who seem to have a very inflexible notion of self, which I find interesting, but I don't have anything more to say about it than that.

    As far as the general thing goes -- I think parodiers should make sure to give credit where credit is due, but beyond that I don't know if they really have a moral obligation not to parody ... it's a bit like the question of what if a fanfic character does something the actor who created the character wouldn't approve of? I don't think the creator of the character really has a right to intervene there.

  5. @Fanny...I know what you mean about merchandising! Watterson did a panel for Berke Breathed that Breathed published in one of his "Bloom County" collections that showed him forcing BC characters back to work to pay for his speed boat. Considering the amount of BC merchandise that was out there it was pretty funny and Breathed took the swipe with grace.

    @Kurbiss...again, it's one of those things where it kind of depends on who you're dealing with. Disney, for example, is legendarily draconian in protecting their copyrights and trademarks but they're also a big target. One of the unfortunate realities is that if they don't take legal action in small cases then they compromise their standing in larger ones.


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