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A Long Time Ago, in a Parody Far Far Away…

If you’re a fan of the original Star Wars movies, then you’ll love Star Wars: Uncut, a viral video created by hundreds of fans around the world. Each fan claimed 15 seconds from the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) and re-filmed it using whoever and whatever they liked – animation, live action, their pets, Star Wars Legos, you name it. The entire film was put together and can be watched online. The Star Wars movies are copyrighted, subject to trademark protection, and probably covered by alien forms of intellectual property law known only by George Lucas and his lawyers. Nonetheless, Lucasfilm contacted the director who put the film clips together, Casey Pugh, and told him that they wanted to support the project. Mr. Pugh signed a nondisclosure agreement with Lucasfilm, but he was able to say that neither he nor Lucasfilm were going to make any money on Star Wars: Uncut. What would have happened if Lucas had woken up on the Dark Side that morning (I really can’t resist, sorry) and had gone after Pugh and his rebel alliance (someone please stop me) for copyright infringement?As my faithful readers will recall, I recently discussed the concept of fair use and the four factors used to determine if an alleged infringer is allowed to use all or portions of a copyrighted work. I noted that if the new use of the copyrighted work is transformative – meaning that it has a new meaning or message – there is a greater chance that it will be considered fair use. Parodies, like Star Wars: Uncut, are often considered transformative; therefore, parodists are generally allowed to use portions of a copyright work.

What is a Parody?

We commonly think of parodies as a movie, song, play, etc. that is “poking fun” at something in our culture. Saturday Night Live skits and Spaceballs (Mel Brooks’ take on Star Wars) are a few common examples of parody. Legally, parodies are defined more broadly. In legal terms, a parody is “a literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule.” It is regarded as a criticism or comment on the original copyrighted work. In simple terms, it has to convey to the audience some type of message about the original work. This “message” fits in with the transformative element of the fair use inquiry because that message is adding something new; it takes all or part of the original work and gives it a different purpose or character.

Parody should not be confused with satire. A parody needs to mimic an original to make its point. Satire, on the other hand, may use the copyrighted work to make a point, or comment on, about something other than the copyrighted work. Songs by “Weird Al” Yankovic are a good example. While they are often referred to as “parodies,” they would more properly be classified as satire, because he tends to use a copyrighted song by an artist and changes the lyrics to make a joke about something else in society. For example, he used the tune of Don MacLean’s “American Pie” to compose a riff on Star Wars (see how it all ties together?).

A parody must comment on something well-known enough for the audience to understand that it is a parody and not a completely original work in itself. A parody does not just have to make people laugh or make fun of the original work – instead, it could elicit anger, make the audience feel disgusted, or provoke warm and happy reactions. Any type of commentary will do.

Special Factors For Parodies

In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the pioneering rap group 2 Live Crew (I’m not going to tell you what they were pioneers in – you can look it up yourself, but make sure there aren’t any kids around) when they were sued by the owners of the copyright for Roy Orbison’s song “Oh, Pretty Woman.” 2 Live Crew had recorded a…colorful…interpretation of the song.

The Court focused on the “transformative” fair use factor cited above, minimizing the impact of the remaining three factors with respect to parody. The second factor – the nature of the copyrighted work – was ignored because parodies often copy expressive, creative works and hardly ever copy functional, informational works. The third factor, the amount and substantiality of taking, was relaxed somewhat. Parodies need to be able to use enough of the original work to make the object of the comment recognizable. The court stated that it may be acceptable to copy the “heart” of the work in a parody because the heart conjures up the ideal of the original. Finally, considering the fourth factor, the effect of the accused use on the potential market for or value of copyrighted work, the Court noted that parodies are unlikely to trigger this factor because a parody is unlikely to act as a substitute for the original work.

Trivia Moment: Luther Campbell, the leader of 2 Live Crew, originally went by the rap name Luke Skywalker, but he changed it after being sued by Lucas.

So, assuming Lucasfilm had decided to go after Star Wars: Uncut, would Pugh have been able to mount a fair use/parody defense? Probably, although, as with many parodies, it’s hard to determine exactly what the transformational message is, exactly. Is the message “We love Star Wars?” Is it “Star Wars is funny when recreated by amateurs and their pets?” Is it “Star Wars fans have a lot of time on their hands?” Presumably, any of these vital messages would meet the fairly liberal legal definition of parody.

I hope you enjoy watching Star Wars: Uncut as much as I did. Until the next episode…

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