The Beastie Boys, a popular American hip hop singing group, released a song titled “Girls” in 1987. It contained lyrics commonly regarded as sexist. They included the following: “Girls, to do the dishes; Girls to clean up my room; Girls, to do the laundry . . . Girls, that’s all I really want is girls; Two at a time, I want girls. . . .” The song was copyrighted, meaning the band reserved the exclusive right to use and copy the song. One of the band members, Adam Yauch, has since died. His will specifically forbids the use of his music in advertisements.
GoldiBlox is a toy company that seeks to challenge gender stereotyping in children’s toys. It makes engineering and construction toys targeted to girls. It recently produced a video that went viral, having garnered eight million views and counting. The video’s theme mocks stereotyped toys for females. The musical background consists of a rendition of “Girls” but the words have been altered to suggest girls have lots of talents, including in technical fields such as scientists and engineers.
The Beastie Boys threatened to sue GoldiBlox for copyright infringement , meaning unauthorized use of a copyrighted work. The toy company took pre-emptive action and sued for a declaratory judgment (a determination by a court that determines the rights or duties of one or more of the parties to a civil dispute) that the video is a parody (a work that imitates an original work and is intended to mock or comment on the original work in a humorous way). The law recognizes that parody, by its very nature, requires some taking of the original work. Thus, parodies are often protected by the fair use doctrine. This legal rule permits limited use of copyrighted material without obtaining permission from the copyright holder and applies to such uses as parody, commentary, teaching, criticism, and news reporting.
Interestingly, the Beastie Boys issued an open letter supporting the message in the GoldieBlox video but unbending in its commitment to avoiding use of the band’s songs to promote a product. The letter reads in part “ We strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes and igniting a passion for technology and engineering. As creative as[your video is, make no mistake, your video is an advertisement . . . and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.”
Note: Concerning the deceased Beastie Boy’s will which seeks to prohibit use of the band’s songs in advertisements, that document binds only those who received rights to the songs via the will. It would not bind others such as GoldiBlox.
In a parallel case, the children of Marvin Gaye, Motown singer and recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, just filed a copyright infringement case against recording artists Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and Clifford Harris. The suit alleges that the latters’ popular 2013 hit single “Blurred Lines” copied eight compositional elements (artist parts of a whole work) from Gaye’s hit “Got to Give It Up”, including the “unusual” cowbell instrumentation, omission of guitar, and use of male falsetto. Two months ago Thicke, Williams and Harris brought a declaratory judgment action against Gaye’s estate seeking to establish that the song was not plagiarized.
Several music reviewers noted a similarity of the two songs, including Rolling Stone, the New York Times, and Vice. In a May, 2013 interview with GQ Magazine, Thicke ill-advisedly said he and Williams had written the song in just 30 minutes after listening to Gaye’s song and deciding “we should make something like that, something with that groove.” Thicke has since retracted his comments (hard to do effectively) in a September interview with TMZ, a celebrity news media outlet.
The suit by Gaye’s children also alleges that Thicke’s 2011 song, “Love After War” infringes Gaye’s 1976 song, “After the Dance.” The complaint alleges that both of the subject songs by Thicke contain “substantial similarities that reach the very essence of each work.” The case seeks $150,000 for each alleged act of infringement. Thicke responds that the songs in question have been evaluated by a leading musicologist who concluded that “Blurred Lines” does not infringe “To to Give It Up.” If the case is not settled, a judge or jury will ultimately decide.
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1) Concerning the Beasty Boys and GoldiBlox dispute, should bands be able to restrict uses of their songs even when such uses would otherwise be covered by fair use? Or should the free flow of information and commentary take priority?
2) Concerning the Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke dispute, can you detect similarities between the songs referenced in this article (iTunes and other similar sites permit listening to portions of songs)?