Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wednesday's Weird But True Legal Cases - Vol XLVIII

This week's weird (but true) legal case grapples with the issue of whether a singer can parody another person's song.

The genesis of this review is a conversation which I had with my father in law on the way back from Sarah's cousin's wedding. The band had played a song which was a Jewish parody of the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic "Sweet Home Alabama." My father in law asked me whether the band could legally do this. I knew that somehow the bigger acts like Weird Al found a way to parody songs, but was intrigued by the question and decided to look into it.

As luck would have it, my research led me to a recent Judge Deborah Batts decision in Bourne Co. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Co., 602 F.Supp.2d 499 (S.D.N.Y. 2009).

In Bourne, the creator of the Pinocchio song "When You Wish Upon A Star" sued the parent company of the Family Guy over an episode which included a song entitled "I Need a Jew" which was set to the music of "When You Wish Upon A Star."

As noted by Judge Batts, the Family Guy episode:

[I]s centered around the show's father character, Peter, and his inability to manage his family's finances. After hearing his friends talk about how men with Jewish-sounding names have helped them to achieve financial success, Peter decides that he “needs a Jew” to help him with his finances. The overall theme of the Episode is that Peter's beliefs based upon racial stereotypes, even potentially “positive” ones, are ridiculous. At the end of the Episode, Peter says to his wife, Lois, “I see what you're saying. The Jewish are just like us. No better, no worse.”

When the TV show's producers initially decided to parody the Pinocchio song, they asked for a license from Bourne, but were turned down. They they wrote a song which clearly resembled the Pinocchio classic in tune, but with decidedly more risque words.

As stated by Judge Batts, the facts of the matter were not in dispute. The Judge noted:

For the purposes of this motion, the Parties agree that Defendants' use of the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” would be an infringement of Bourne's rights under the Copyright Act but for a finding of fair use. The Parties agree that “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” incorporates musical elements from “When You Wish Upon a Star” and was created in a manner intended to evoke that song. The Parties also agree that at least one of the purposes of the song used in the Episode was to hold bigotry and people like Peter Griffin up to ridicule.

In determining the motions for summary judgment, Judge Batts relied heavily on the doctrine of fair use. The court explained:

According to the Supreme Court, “[t]he fair use doctrine [ ] ‘permits [and requires] courts to avoid rigid application of the copyright statute when, on occasion, it would stifle the very creativity which that law is designed to foster.’ ” Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 576-577, 114 S.Ct. 1164, 127 L.Ed.2d 500 (1994) (quoting Stewart v. Abend, 495 U.S. 207, 236, 110 S.Ct. 1750, 109 L.Ed.2d 184 (1990) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). Further, “[t]he task is not to be simplified with bright-line rules, for the statute, like the doctrine it recognizes, calls for case-by-case analysis.” Id. at 577, 110 S.Ct. 1750.
Having applied the fair use test (which I will omit from this post in the interests of brevity), the court opined:

[B]y juxtaposing the “saccharin sweet” song “When You Wish Upon a Star” with “I Need a Jew” the Defendants do more than just comment on racism and bigotry generally, as Plaintiff contends. Rather, Defendants' use of “When You Wish Upon a Star” calls to mind a warm and fuzzy view of the world that is ultimately nonsense; wishing upon a star does not, in fact, make one's dreams come true. By pairing Peter's “positive,” though racist, stereotypes of Jewish people with that fairy tale world-view, “I Need a Jew” comments both on the original work's fantasy of Stardust and magic, as well as Peter's fantasy of the “superiority” of Jews. The song can be “reasonably perceived” to be commenting that any categorical view of a race of people is childish and simplistic, just like wishing upon a star.
If you have seen this post being carried on another site such as JBlog, please feel free to click here to find other articles on the kosherbeers blogsite. Hey its free and you can push my counter numbers up!

No comments: