Cyberclinic: Copyright sharks don't need to bite the parodies

Rhodri Marsden
Wednesday 10 August 2011 00:00 BST

Computers are great. The same software that lets you layer effects over your video of a lingering Cornwall sunset also lets you cut together sped-up footage of that nude wrestling scene from Women in Love with the Benny Hill theme, guaranteeing yourself YouTube notoriety.

But you're not supposed to. In America you could defend such dastardly acts on the grounds of satire, but there's still no such exemption in Britain despite recommendations to the contrary by the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property and, latterly, the Hargreaves Review.

But last week, Vince Cable gave his "broad backing" to satirical jibes at the work of U2. (He didn't specify U2, but I'd personally welcome it.) Will it make much difference? It's not as if British creators of mash-up audio and video are troubled by the existing law; they're barely aware of being supposed to ask copyright owners.

But as 99 per cent of their creations are sufficiently rubbish to be completely ignored, does it really matter? The only people to run into problems are the few successful ones; almost exactly a year ago, "Newport State Of Mind" – a popular Welsh reinvention of the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hit – was removed from YouTube after the original songwriters revealed themselves to be devoid of humour.

All public sympathy was with the creators of the parody. "Seriously, what harm is it doing?" we shouted.

A few copyright owners faced with slightly edgier satire have recently demonstrated a greater level of forgiveness than either Jay-Z or Keys. Hasbro hasn't just turned a blind eye to mash-ups of the My Little Pony cartoon, they've encouraged it – thus the YouTube clip of Twilight Sparkle miming along to Wu-Tang Clan's "Shame on a Nigga" remains online.

Garfield's creator, Jim Davis, approved of a website dedicated to Garfield cartoons that had Garfield digitally excised, and a book was eventually published. The guardians of the Peanuts cartoon strip, however, were unamused by the Peanut Tweeter project, which transplanted text from tweets into existing Peanuts cartoons. A take-down notice was served – and obeyed, demonstrating that the American "fair use" law is an amorphous, grey concept that can be overridden by legal muscle.

If you have the wealth and someone pokes fun at your art, you certainly have no incentive to be laid back in your response. But satirists still have every incentive to panic in the face of legal threats and quickly take their work offline.

One strategy is simply to make the parody so good that the wronged parties can't fail to like it; witness the magnificent "MasterChef Synaesthesia", a creation put together without permission but now at No 52 on the iTunes chart and being used to promote the show in Australia.

So keep mashing things up; the worst that could happen is that you'll come up with a bad joke. And there's so many of those online that barely anyone will notice if you do.

July saw the Public Health Commission in Boston, Massachusetts, arrange a one-day conference for teenagers on the subject of "healthy breakups", following concerns that young adults are dumping each other heartlessly via text message or social media.

"Face it, don't Facebook it" was the slogan of the day, as doubters were informed that suddenly and unexpectedly changing your relationship status with someone on Facebook – precipitating an announcement to all and sundry – is neither subtle nor kind. I've no idea whether those attending the conference ended up promising faithfully to work towards amicable separations in future, but I prefer my idea of a Facebook relationship status that reads: "Seem to be getting on OK for the time being."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in