November 25, 2013

Is a parody copyright infringement or fair use?

Posted by Dr. Laura Guertin

Trending these days is the GoldieBlox video, a clever video with three young girls that set up their own Rube Goldberg machine, showing that girls are just as smart and clever with innovative design and curiosity.  And the background music is just a clever, a re-do of the Beastie Boys song “Girls,” recorded with younger voices and new girl-friendly lyrics.

GoldieBox video (unfortunately, the original video has been taken down – see the end of this post).  Here is the link to the video with the new audio track.

The initial reaction to the video was very positive – how could anyone not like a product that encourages young girls to explore their inner STEM identity?  But this is where the catch comes in – GoldieBlox is a commercial product using a commercial song to promote itself.  So is it really fair use – especially when GoldieBlox did not receive permission to use the song in the first place?  Granted, the lyrics are certainly different, but the melody is certainly the same and easily recognizable.  Early articles reported that the Beastie Boys were suing GoldieBlox, but it turns out that GoldieBlox was the first to file suit.  A statement from the two surviving Beastie Boys was released (taken from ABC News):

“Like many of the millions of people who have seen your toy commercial ‘GoldieBlox, Rube Goldberg & the Beastie Boys,’ we were very impressed by the creativity and the message behind your ad,” they wrote. “We strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes and igniting a passion for technology and engineering. As creative as it is, make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads. When we tried to simply ask how and why our song ‘Girls’ had been used in your ad without our permission, YOU sued US.”

I think this issue of fair use for a parody vs. copyright infringement incredibly complicated for students to understand – especially when there are several examples of videos out there that are parodies, such as Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise transformed to Weird Al Yankovic’s Amish Paradise.  But in this particular case with GoldieBlox, it is complicated by using a parody to sell a product.  Who is in the wrong here?  Should the Beastie Boys applaud the positive spin on their lyrics that encourages girls to become engineers and let the issue go, or should they take a stand and defend their creative product (the original song)?  Or is there an issue in the first place, as this article discusses that the parody is trying to get a bigger message out beyond the product?

It will be interesting to see how this turns out in the end… you can track lots of feedback and opinions on Twitter via the hashtag #GoldieBlox – clearly, the opinions are divided on “Girls.”

11/27 update (from – GoldieBlox toy company backs down from Beastie Boys fight.

Below is the founder of GoldieBlox, Debbie Sterling, who spoke at TEDxPSU in 2013.