Beastie Boys, Goldieblox, & Fair Use Part II: Electric Boogaloo

Oh, come on, I had to. I’ve wanted to use that in a blog post title for ages.

Last month, I talked about the mess Goldieblox and the Beastie Boys had gotten themselves into. A quick recap: Goldieblox made an ad on YouTube parodying one of the Beastie Boys’ songs, and it went viral. The Beastie Boys don’t let their songs be used in advertising. Much finger-pointing ensued, and Goldieblox sued the Beasties for declaratory judgment before putting up a CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG post. And then things went sort of quiet, while the internet sorted itself into Team Goldieblox, Team Beastie Boys, and Team Who The Hell Cares.

And then…

Last week, the Beastie Boys countersued Goldieblox. The counter-complaint (it’s a counter-complaint because Goldieblox sued first by asking the court for declaratory judgment, and the Beastie Boys had never gotten to make a complaint in the first place) is an arsenal: it’s not just copyright infringement but also trademark infringement, false advertisement, false endorsement. unfair competition, and misappropriation of right of publicity. They’ve thrown everything they could at Goldieblox. And interestingly, they’ve asked for the profits Goldieblox has made from the video.

Okay, that’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start with the doubletake:

Why are the Beastie Boys still so mad?

Goldieblox tried to make nice, right? Well…yes and no. Sure, Goldieblox put up a white flag blog post. But it never ended its lawsuit against the Beastie Boys. So Goldieblox was effectively standing there with one hand offering a handshake and the other holding a loaded gun.

And this was after Goldieblox had made similar videos rewriting Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” for which they never got licensing rights either, as well as videos using songs by Daft Punk, Kaskade, and other artists. These videos have now been pulled or made private, as has “I Want A Goat,” a similar video Goldieblox’s CEO and founder made for a fundraising campaign in India, for which she and her husband rewrote the lyrics to Lonely Island’s “I’m On A Boat” (presumably without getting the licensing rights). As the Beastie Boys say in their counter-complaint, “unfortunately, rather than developing an original advertising campaign to inspire its customers to create and innovate, GoldieBlox has instead developed an advertising campaign that condones and encourages stealing from others.”

Most importantly, though, it’s an ad, and it isn’t just any ad. It’s an ad that Goldieblox has submitted to a contest Intuit is hosting that will allow a small business to air a commercial during the Super Bowl, and Goldieblox’s ad is one of the four finalists. Goldieblox never withdrew the ad from the contest, and it is still eligible for the Super Bowl spot. While this is not mentioned in the prayer for declaratory judgment and is only briefly touched on in the counterclaim, I believe it is the crux of why the Beastie Boys went after Goldieblox as hard as they did. If that commercial airs during the biggest advertising day of the year, it not only stands to give Goldieblox some great advertising, but it potentially harms the Beastie Boys’ effort to keep their music from being associated with commercials and their names from being associated with advertising.

But it’s fair use, right?

Maybe. Probably. I think Goldieblox has a very good fair use argument. But nothing is ever 100% fair use until a judge says it is.

It may be an outdated exaggeration to say, as Larry Lessig does, that “Fair use is the right to hire a lawyer,” but to an extent it’s true: while we have a good deal of strong case law and precedent that gives us guidelines, ultimately fair use is what a court says it is. In this case, as I discussed in my last post, it is entirely possible for commercial use, even an advertisement, to also be fair use. However, the use of a work, even the parody of a work, in an advertisement weighs against a finding of fair use, but it’s only one thing to consider.

It’s worth discussing Goldieblox and parody, though. There’s a difference between parody and satire. A parody is a work that imitates another work in order to poke fun at or comment on something about the work itself. A satire is a work that pokes fun at or comments on something external to the work: the world in general, cultural issues, political issues, and so forth. The “Girls” video is a parody because the original song was misogynistic, and the Goldieblox video sings about empowering young girls. It comments on the work itself. However, looking at it in the context of Goldieblox’s larger campaign of taking songs from popular musicians and making funny, cute, derivative songs from them — such as turning “I’m On A Boat” into “I Want A Goat” — it begins to look less like an insightful commentary and more like coincidence. “I Want A Goat” does not comment on the message of “I’m On A Boat.” It just happens to fit the rhyme scheme. Still parody, but not a particularly inspiring one.

Okay, what about those damages? What profits? It’s YouTube!

Now that’s an interesting issue. How do you value damages for copyright infringement on social media? Shameless plug: I have some friends working on a really awesome article on that, coming out in a few months. In the meantime, we can always just speculate.

It’s a YouTube video, sure. But it’s also an ad, and it has an associated product. That product is now in the top 25 on in all toys and games. It’s also being sold at some other retailers, including Toys ‘R’ Us and smaller stores. You could track sales of the toy before the video launched and after the video launched. The Beastie Boys will argue that those increased sales are due to the video and its association with their song. Goldieblox, however, will point out that not only did they have a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, but in the weeks since the video launched, the holiday season has begun and parents are shopping for gifts for children. These purchases may not be attributable to the video.

Things may get really complex, though, if the Goldieblox video wins the Intuit contest and airs during the Super Bowl. An average 30-second ad spot cost $4 million for the 2013 Super Bowl. Will this count as profit or gain? Most likely. Certainly any resulting sales of the product attributable to the ad would.

Then they’d all have to argue about what proportion of those sales are due to the song, and what proportion are due to the use of the Beastie Boys’ name, and what proportion are due to the cute kids, and what proportion are due to the action in the video, and what proportion are due to the actual toy itself, and what proportion are due to the Goldieblox brand and reputation, and….

…now you know why we can’t have nice things.

How do I make sure this doesn’t happen to me?

That one’s super easy.

  • Are you making a parody song or using another artist’s work? Contact the artist and ask permission. That’s what Weird Al does (you notice he never covers any Prince songs? Prince never gives permission, and even though he’s pretty safe in the Fair Use Zone, Weird Al prefers to have the original artist’s permission). It’s amazing what you can do with permission.
  • Can’t get permission? Give some serious thought as to whether or not your idea is worth it. Fair use exists to give new creators the ability to innovate, but if your innovation is so close to someone else’s original work that they feel a need to protect it, you may need to defend your idea. Is it something you feel strongly enough about to defend? If it is, then you might talk to someone who knows fair use to make sure you minimize your risk.
  • Have you been using another artist’s work and find yourself on the receiving end of legal questions? Politely try to work things out amicably first. The creator of the This Charming Charlie Tumblr received several takedown notices from Universal Music, so she and some other fans reached out to Morrissey. Morrissey issued a statement that he was not represented by Universal, and he supported the Tumblr and hoped it would continue. As I said before, we live in an age of unprecedented access to artists: try asking for permission, even after the fact.
  • Have things progressed to the stage of legal threats or even legal action? Keep a level head. There’s no sense coming out swinging and then having to take things back.


Beastie Boys, Goldieblox, & Fair Use

At this point, most people who read my blog have a pretty good understanding of fair use. We understand the basic principles: we know that a fair use analysis considers four factors, and even commercial uses of a copyrighted work can be fair use, as long as the other factors point to fair use. One particularly protected area is in parody, where an artist is permitted to use of some elements of a prior original work in order to create a new composition that, in some way, comments on that original. Right?

We also know that fair use is one of the hardest, most thorny issues in intellectual property law. In the last few days, a situation has come up that has really done a fine job of illustrating why fair use is such a tricky area, and it points out the biggest thing so many artists forget: it isn’t enough to figure out whether or not a use is fair. The law isn’t all that matters. Let’s start with a little history lesson:

Three MCs and a song about girls

In 1986, the Beastie Boys recorded their (not really) debut album, Licensed to Ill. The album was almost entirely tongue in cheek: a “goof” on the braggadocio of rap music and party rock in which the Beasties depicted themselves as Wild West gunfighters, drunken rock stars, and womanizing louts, and it included a song called “Girls.” In the spirit of the rest of the album, “Girls” was a sexist fantasy about chasing after women (and not getting any), and wanting women to clean the house and hop into bed. Most people never understood that it was meant to be a joke, and the Beastie Boys quickly distanced themselves from the song. They rarely performed the song live, and on subsequent albums the Beasties have rapped about their respect for women.

In legal circles, the Beastie Boys are famous for their support of fair use and other use of copyrighted works — not just lip-service support, but their many legal battles to establish just how much of a work can be used (for instance, see Newton v. Diamond). The Beasties are the last people anyone would expect to be predatory with their copyrighted works.

Goldieblox and a video about girls

On November 18, a really great internet startup called Goldieblox posted a video on YouTube called “GoldieBlox, Rube Goldberg, & Beastie Boys.” The video is a commercial for Goldieblox’s construction toys aimed at little girls, and in the video, girls use the Goldieblox gear to construct an elaborate Rube Goldberg device while singing “Girls”…with new, improved lyrics. Lyrics about how girls’ toys are pink and pretty, and everything else is for boys. Lyrics about how girls can build spaceships and code apps. The video is, let’s face it, awesome.

It was also made without the Beastie Boys’ permission.

The Beastie Boys don’t license their music for commercials. They never have; they are currently suing Monster Energy for using their music in promotional clips without authorization. In fact, when much-loved Beastie Boy Adam Yauch died of cancer in May 2012, he left a will that prohibits the use of his music or likeness in commercials or advertising, stating: “in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes.” You might say this unwillingness to use music for ads is a big deal for them.

The backlash begins

A few days later, the Beastie Boys saw the video. They sent Goldieblox a letter explaining that while they liked they video, they didn’t allow their songs to be used in advertising, and they asked why Goldieblox was using “Girls.” Goldieblox immediately (on Nov. 21) went to court and sued, asking for a declaratory judgment: in short, Goldieblox asked the court to rule on whether or not the use was infringing.

And this is why we have such a difficult situation. Goldieblox is probably right in nearly every legal way: the use is fair. The use is a parody. The use doesn’t affect the Beastie Boys’ own ability to license their song, because they would never license it for a commercial anyway (and, for those who might be about to ask, yes, it’s totally okay to make a fair use of another work for commercial purposes). The use does not affect the market for the original song. Goldieblox is, legally, almost certainly in the right.

But that doesn’t mean Goldieblox is right. Oh yes, it followed the law. Goldieblox checked to make sure its use was okay from a fair use perspective. But now what? Now it’s not only in the middle of an expensive lawsuit, it also looks like the bad guy: the company who took a song from beloved musical heroes who’ve tried to honor the final wish of a fallen band member. It’s also in the ugly position of trying to paint the Beastie Boys as copyright bullies: a tactic that worked for about 24 hours, until Beastie Boy Mike Diamond sent an open letter to Goldieblox through the New York Times clarifying that Goldieblox sued them, not the other way around.

In the last day or two, the backlash against Goldieblox has been tremendous. The little startup has gone from viral video champion to villain as bloggers and journalists raised the argument that not only is the company playing dirty in its fight against the Beastie Boys, it’s also not really as girl-positive as the video claims. Rather than offering young girls STEM toys and encouraging them to build and learn, it seems that Goldieblox is locking little girls into the princess paradigm and handing them a pretty pink hammer so they can help build a parade float for their pretty princess friends.

So what did Goldieblox do wrong, and what can we learn?

Goldieblox didn’t try asking permission first. If Goldieblox had asked first, it would have learned that Beastie Boys don’t license their music for commercials…and maybe Goldieblox could have created a solution that allowed the awesome viral video to go forward with the blessing and support of the musicians they were parodying, instead of creating a controversy. If not, at least it could have had the discussion and decided whether or not to proceed once it had all the information, assessing not just the legal issues but also the public relations concerns.

We live in a world of unprecedented access to legal information. It’s easy to read an article about how to avoid legal liability, or how to make fair use of content. However, we also live in a world of unprecedented access to content creators (even famous ones), and there’s nothing as safe as a permitted use.

So it’s just like kindergarten: if you want to use somebody’s stuff, ask. Maybe they’ll say yes. Maybe they won’t, and it’ll still be okay to use it anyway, but at least then you can make a fully informed decision. Because in addition to doing the legal thing, we also have to do the right thing.

Edit: Today (Nov. 27), Goldieblox posted an open letter to the Beastie Boys asking if they could all just get along, and removed the song from the video. The lawsuit is still active, but Goldieblox states that it is ready to end it “as long as [they] will no longer be under threat” of an infringement suit. Isn’t it sad to think of how much negativity and bad press could have been spared if they’d just asked first?

Edit again! Newer developments have necessitated a sequel to this post. Go check it out! (I’m not typing out the scratch noises.)

Trademarks for Copyright Aficionados

The internet is filled with people who create copyrightable content, from blog posts like this one to YouTube videos to photographs. Many of the people who create content on the internet are familiar with good old copyright law, which seems so easy and straightforward (protip: it isn’t, but it’s good at pretending). On first approach, we expect trademark law to be the same: basically just copyright law with a business suit on.

It isn’t. Trademark law has a completely different goal and intent. Let me lay out the basics in a handy comparison chart, and then I’ll get to the hard stuff.

Readers Digest Version: Trademark law isn’t like copyright law. Copyright law protects the creator / owner. Trademark law protects the consumer / buyer. When trying to decide if something infringes or not, copyright asks, “Oh, is it similar to John Doe’s work?”. Trademark asks, “Would consumers think that this product comes from that source?”.

Okay, so that’s the easy part. Now we have to look at the really difficult part – the stuff that always throws people about trademarks.

When you create a work of authorship, like a painting, that work is covered. Full stop. It doesn’t matter what state you live in. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using that painting for your awesome lolcat website or for your grandmother’s birthday present. It’s covered.

When you create a brand name, a logo, a symbol, or any other mark, it matters how and where you choose to use that mark. If I create the “WhoaToes” brand of fuzzy socks and I am the first person to sell fuzzy socks under the name “WhoaToes,” I will immediately have a trademark for “WhoaToes” in my geographical area. I can register “WhoaToes” with the Trademark Office, and then I will have the right to use the mark nationwide. So that’s the where part.

The how part is more confusing. When I register my trademark, I have to indicate what kind of goods I intend to protect. I’m selling fuzzy socks. This means that when I register my trademark, I can register “WhoaToes” in clothing, and I can keep people from using that mark for clothing. So I could stop someone from making some awesome “WhoaToes” sweaters. However, if I’ve only claimed my mark in the clothing class of goods, I can’t stop someone from making “WhoaToes” potatoes or “WhoaToes” toys. I also can’t prevent non-commercial uses…

Except (you had to know there would be an except). I can prevent certain uses that harm the distinctiveness or the reputation of my brand. If my brand is famous, I get some extra protections on it: once practically everybody knows what WhoaToes is, I can stop people from making products in different classes. Basically, I can stop other people from cashing in on my famous mark, because if I don’t, then consumers won’t be able to tell what goods are really endorsed by WhoaToes and what goods are just some random person trying to ride my fuzzy WhoaToes coattails. After a while, consumers might just stop trusting the WhoaToes name, and that would be bad.

These are the basics. Of course, I am summarizing, and I am leaving a lot out (and some of the things I’ve left out are pretty important). If you have specific questions about getting trademark protection for your brand or logo, please talk to an attorney.


Side note: The chart above is CC0 public domain, to the extent of applicable law. Have at. I’d love a link back if you feel like it, but I don’t require it.