Rhodri Marsden: A parody is not funny in the eyes of the law
Wednesday 18 August 2010
On Friday, in a moment of questionable inspiration, I spent 15 minutes combining a segment from a certain bank's deeply unpopular television advert with a death metal song, added a voiceover, and posted the clip online in the hope that people might find it mildly amusing. It failed to pack the intended satirical punch, in no way became a viral sensation, and was quickly buried under innumerable gigabytes of other nonsense slung online that day. But perhaps I was fortunate; had it generated much interest, the bank and the death metal band might have formed an unholy legal alliance to force me to remove it. And I'd have reluctantly had to agree, while muttering about it only being a "bit of fun".
Such was the experience of film maker Morgan-Jane Delaney, who last week discovered that her much-celebrated homage to Jay-Z, Alicia Keys and the Welsh town of Newport entitled "Ymerodraeth State Of Mind" had been removed from YouTube after a takedown request from EMI Music Publishing. It was far from the first parody of the Jay-Z hit on the site, but easily the funniest ("Newport, access from the A4042, traffic will enrage you, on your way to Newport") and the most popular, with several million views. Television appearances and glory-basking ensued, but now one presumes the mooted single release is on hold. EMI's action has proved fairly impotent; however fast the video is deleted from YouTube, someone uploads it again (search for "Ymerodraeth" and you'll see what I mean) but there's no denying that it's spoiled Delaney's dinner party like a bailiff with a sledgehammer.
In an era where computers make reworking and sharing material as easy as falling off a rickety stool, it is easy to forget the legal issues that hover ominously over satire and parody. Delaney ran into trouble because in doing a brilliant job she raised two issues, the first being economic: who would receive the royalties generated by the YouTube video? (Although the sums involved would barely keep Jay-Z in shampoo, let alone champagne.) And secondly moral, because, despite a recommendation to the contrary in the 2006 Gowers Review Of Intellectual Property, you still have to ask the permission of the UK copyright owner before you lampoon or indeed pay homage in this way. You could probably perform a satirical version of a song at a venue or even on radio or television and get away with it, but accidentally gaining notoriety online seems to be asking for trouble.
Did Delaney know she needed permission? Possibly; I asked her, but she politely declined to comment. If she did know – while obviously unaware of how popular her film would become – she may have thought, "they'll say no, so I'll just do it anyway". (And who could blame her? Jay-Z's reputation was certainly never going to suffer as a result.) Did EMI Music Publishing have any choice in demanding removal? Not really; Alexander Ross at media lawyers Wiggin informs me that every publishing contract contains a clause that prevents parodies being licensed. And imagine EMI saying to Jay-Z "Yeah, well, we saw that video, but it was really good, so we thought we'd sit around doing nothing about it." Little wonder that campaigning organisation the Open Rights Group are, once again, calling for urgent reform of copyright law, adding that parody and satire are "vital parts of our culture". Something's certainly amiss when a harmless video such as Delaney's, loved by millions, was obliterated, while my own pathetic mashup is still online as I type.
Those struggling manfully or womanfully with internet dating's brutal cycle of anticipation and rejection could do worse than study some data just unleashed by OK Cupid, which offers fascinating hints on how to adjust your dating profile to make people think you're more attractive than you are. Predictably it centres around photos – because we're too disgustingly shallow to care more about prose than pictures – and the news is that Panasonic cameras take the snaps that garner most interest, with Canon second and cheap camera phones trailing badly. Flash photography adds seven years to your age – ouch – while the best time to be photographed is either 2am or 4pm, with the worst (unsurprisingly) being 9am. The most eye-opening statistic is that iPhone owners are more successful with the opposite sex, prompting one blog commenter to whine: "This has not been my experience – can I get out of my contract?"
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