Beastie Boys Lawsuit Highlights the Gray Areas of Online Fair Use

/ Nov 25, 2013


After launching a Rube Goldberg machine video set to the tune of the Beastie Boys “Girls,” Bay Area startup GoldieBlox found itself with not only a viral hit on its hands, but also a lawsuit. After the video set the blogosphere ablaze, Nasty Little Man, the Beastie Boys’ PR company, issued an open letter to GoldieBlox, stating that the company never asked permission to use the song.

Firing back, GoldieBlox issued a lawsuit against the Beastie Boys, claiming that the video uses new lyrics, thus making it a parody. According to the Fair Use Doctrine, parody does not infringe on copyright laws.



In 1961, the “Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law” lists several examples of fair use, including: “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied.”

Despite the partially firm legal ground GoldieBlox can build its lawsuit on, the Beastie Boys responded back to the company, writing:

“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.

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.”

In the suit, which was filed in California Federal District Court, GoldieBlox claims that the video was created to comment on the original Beastie Boys song, which also falls into the fair use category of analysis.

Multi-channel Network Fullscreen recently fell into a similar dispute, as several music publishers sued the company for copyright infringement. Larry Iser, managing partner of Kinsella Weitzman Iser Krump & Aldisert — a law firm that specializes in intellectual property cases — wrote about the Fullscreen suit earlier this month. “To constitute a fair use, the video must be using the musical composition for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody the copyrighted work itself,” he writes.

While the GoldieBlox videos does seem to fall into these categories, Iser raises an interesting point that could potentially throw a wrench into the lawsuit: “It isn’t a fair use to take an entire song and sing it in a funny way, or to use the lyrics in a clever way, or to poke fun, comment upon, criticize, or parody anything other than the song itself,” writes Iser.

For GoldieBlox, the parodies’ new lyrics, by its own admission, are sung “specifically to comment on the Beastie Boys song, and to further the company’s goal to break down gender stereotypes.” As we can see, GoldieBlox is attempting to veer into fair use by claiming that the parody only analyses the song “Girls” and not the whole of gender stereotypes.

It’s an extremely murky area that GoldieBlox is attempting to legally navigate. However, backed by these fair use laws, the company may have a legitimate claim.

Representatives of GoldieBlox have yet to comment directly on the lawsuit.

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