Could a rah rah "parody" song spell copyright trouble?
April 7, 2010 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Corporate client wants to re-lyric a popular Broadway show tune and use it at a private meeting. Is this kosher?

One of my clients - a substantial regional business - is in the process of planning for a private annual meeting with 350 member guests. As part of the meeting, one of the event planners rewrote the words to a popular Broadway show tune and wants to create a videotaped version of this song to play at the meeting. I am concerned that this might be a copyright violation. It's not really parody, in the sense of being a humorous spoof - it's more along the lines of a company cheerleading/motivational thing. If it was being sung live by staff, I wouldn't be as concerned, but the idea that it is put on tape worries me. The party planner says that they do this for large (Fortune 500) corporate clients all the time and with a "relyric," we should be safe. They claim the only problem would be in distribution of the video. But what if members of the audience make copies on their cellphones or it gets out some other way? (I've seen things like that on YouTube.)

Am I being too much of a worry wart or is this a potential problem?
posted by madamjujujive to Law & Government (9 answers total)
I'm pretty sure its only a problem if you use the song to generate income, or to promote something that will generate income. Playing a song at a private meeting happens all the time - when was the last time you went to a big event that didn't have music? Or that did have custom music? (the answer is: never.)
posted by Kololo at 9:44 AM on April 7, 2010

Parody is covered under fair use copyright law.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:44 AM on April 7, 2010

If it "got out on YouTube", a) the copyright holders would have to issue a takedown notice IF they ever stumbled upon it (and the difference in lyrics would make song-matching harder), and b) they would never, ever, come after the people who produced a parody song performed for a private audience, for private use, and never sold. Should be totally fine.

"Sir, we can't have you humming those bars out loud unless you've paid for a performance license. There are cameras around that might record your performance and upload it to a video sharing site." No.
posted by disillusioned at 9:53 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yep, you're good. Parody is kosher. Hence things like Capitol Steps, Forbidden Broadway...
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:24 AM on April 7, 2010

Best answer: I would tend to think that this is probably fine, but mostly because this involves a small audience, is not for a commercial purpose, not going to be up on YouTube, etc. The comment by roomthreeseventeen that "Parody is covered under fair use copyright law" oversimplifies things - parodies may (and often do qualify as fair use), but this is not a bright-line rule. Fair use would probably not extend to situations where you are just using a well-known song to capitalize on its popularity, and where the parody is not actually "commenting on the original, or criticizing it, to some degree." See Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994). This link also provides some helpful details.
posted by Pontius Pilate at 11:01 AM on April 7, 2010

Well, I'd look at it another way: if you were singing a non-parody song (let's assume at a location that was already paying ASCAP for performance rights) and someone videotaped without your consent and shared it, what's your likely liability?

I'd say none.

However if you think maybe this client would like to have and share that recording in other ways maybe you should look into the licensing. Here's someone's story about recording ten cover songs he didn't originally intend to share/sell but then deciding to do the licensing so he could. It's a UK story but the concept of mechanical rights and the overall procedure should be somewhat enlightening.

Beyond that I think you really need to consult a lawyer who does media/intellectual property if you want full peace of mind on this.
posted by phearlez at 11:16 AM on April 7, 2010

Best answer: By the way - if you look at the footnotes in Pilate's link to the 2LiveCrew case you find what's likely a very pertinent fact to your usage:

A parody that more loosely targets an original than the parody presented here may still be sufficiently aimed at an original work tocome within our analysis of parody. If a parody whose wide dissemination in the market runs the risk of serving as a substitute for the original or licensed derivatives (see infra, discussing factor four), it is more incumbent on one claiming fair use to establish the extent of transformation and the parody's critical relationship to the original. By contrast, when there is little or no risk of market substitution, whether because of the large extent of transformation of the earlier work, the new work's minimal distribution in the market, the small extent to which it borrows from an original, or other factors, taking parodic aim at an original is a less critical factor in the analysis, and looser forms of parody may be found to be fair use, as may satire with lesser justification for the borrowing than would otherwise be required.

Emphasis mine, because I'm pretty sure that no matter what the song is they're parodying the chances are slim anyone would opt to listen to this corporate rah-rah version rather than the original.
posted by phearlez at 11:27 AM on April 7, 2010

Best answer: this video from Stanford Law (found at) and Bucknell (made by) may be illuminating.

point being, even Disney rails in vain at some legitimate uses. IANYL, YMMV.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:50 AM on April 7, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for the opinions and input ... and particularly for some of the helpful links.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:43 PM on April 7, 2010

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