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March 14, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

One week to win a new right to parody

The Government is running a consultation asking how it should change copyright law. We think the reforms they propose would allow people to do lots of useful things that copyright prohibits. That includes allowing people to put CDs onto their iPods, or permitting academic researchers to do smarter analysis of vast amounts of information.

We've been campaigning on one proposal in particular: for a new right to parody using copyrighted work.

At the moment, parodies that use work covered by copyright are not permitted without the permission of the rights holder.

The Government is thinking of changing that. We think that's a great idea, and one which would help nurture and support a new ecosystem of creative engagement with the cultural works around us. It's a simple choice. Is this kind of creativity something that we want the law to support, or deter? We think it should support it. You can help us make that happen.

The consultation (the proposals for parody are on page 83) is nearly closed - the deadline is March 21st. We have one more week to tell policy makers that we need a right to parody.

You can help by writing to the consultation to tell them why you think this is a good idea. Or you can use our simple form to submit your opinions if you like.  

For a video artists' story of what kind of creativity is involved, take a look at Swede Mason (creator of the hilarious Masterchef Synesthesia) describing what he does and why he wants a new right to parody on ORGZine.

So what's the problem?

Videos, music and text don't just entertain us, but are used to sell us products, influence our judgement and as a way to say something about the world. That means copyrighted works are strands of our cultural fabric, not just products to consume.

Technology has made it easier to make creative re-workings of these things. And this kind of creativity is woven into the experience of cultural life online. There are 23,000 Beyonce parody videos, nearly 2,000 Adele parodies, and around 4,000 Madonna parodies.

Making these parodies can help people learn creative techniques, entertain their friends with a funny spoof for friends, or make a point about the original work.

But this kind of creativity sits on the wrong side of our law when it uses parts of the copyrighted work without permission. One reason for this is the absence of an exception for parody under copyright law.

That means that entertaining, important or just plain funny films, songs or other works can be taken out of public view at the say so of the copyright holder.

  • We heard from Greenpeace, who told us that their parody of Volkwagon's 'Star Wars' themed adverts, designed to highlight apparent lobbying by German car manufacturers against stronger CO2 emission laws in Europe, was taken down from YouTube for copyright infringement just as their campaign gained momentum.
  • Comedy sketch writers 'Mother's Best Child' had their Olympics parody video, published as a commentary following the riots, removed after a couple of days having accumulated over 90,000 views, becoming the number 1 comedy video on YouTube.
  • Musician and video maker 'Eclectech' parodied the James Blunt's song "You're Beautiful" with a game that involved throwing tomatoes at a characature of James Blunt, who was singing a song called “You’re Gullible”. The creator of the video received legal threats, which led to the take down of the soundtrack. Visitors are now encouraged to play the tomato throwing game while the (now) mute figure mouths the song and the lyrics appear as subtitles.
  • Video artist Swede Mason found that the TV company behind Masterchef initially told him to take his runaway viral hit 'Masterchef Synesthesia' down off YouTube, and that he is down to his last 'strike' on YouTube under their take down policy. 

When copyright puts creativity like this on the wrong side of the law, we think that copyright stops being something that simple incentivises people to create and rewards them for it, and works instead as a veto over culturally useful or interesting or entertaining activity. We think the law should encourage this kind of creativity instead.


So what can we do?

We need to convince policy makers that we need a new right to parody. That means if you make parodies, enjoy them, support them, or think this is an important issue, now is the time to submit a response to the consultation.

You can do that by writing to this email addressYou have until March 21st. So get your skates on!

But isn't writing to the government difficult? 

It's actually easy to respond - they're just people who want to know what as many people as possible think about what they are proposing. You just have to tell them what you think. 

Remember that short and to the point is helpful. The IPO will get lots and lots of responses. Being clear about what you want to say will help get your point across. So stating whether you had a problem with copyright when making parodies, or found some parodies using copyrighted work to be of value, is great. Long stories about the details of the first time you saw comedy are probably less so!

What should I say?

It's completely up to you what you tell the consultation team, of course. Some background might help, and we have some suggestions about the issues you might want to cover.

I make parodies. What should I say?

If you make parodies and think you'll benefit from a new exception, it's really important that the Government hears from you.

Tell them what kind of parodies you make, the creative process involved, and about your experiences of copyright. For example, if you've been asked to take something down, or had videos removed, then tell them. Say why you think what you do is something the law should support.

You could try to include details about how many views you've had to your videos and video site channels if possible.

Won't this hurt artists who make the works being parodied?

We don't believe that is the case. The Government wants to introduce this as a 'fair dealing' exception (see page 75 of the consultation for an outline of what fair dealing is). This means that a parody that does not compete with or substitute for exploitation of the original, which involves work that has been published, and which uses the amount necessary for the intended purpose, will be allowed. That includes parodies made for commercial gain (so that a parody artist could make money out of their work if they wanted to.)

We think this is the best way to support parodies and safeguard against any undesirable effects on the creators of the parodied work. We don't think parodies will competitors with the original commercially – there is no suggestion, for example, that Weird Al Jankovic songs eat into the sales of the artists he parodies.

Furthermore, this won't mean that an artists' creation will be associated with an undesirable cause, because making a parody is not the same as 'passing off' a work as something made by somebody else. A parody is not the original - that's inherent to the concept. 

If you think that the Government should define what a parody exception should or shoudl not include, or limit the kind of parodies that people should be allowed to make, tell the consultation team.


Who else thinks a new parody exception is a good idea?

We've heard from many people who support the idea. Here's a few:

Graham Linehan, writer of IT Crowd, Father Ted and the theatrical adaptation of The Ladykillers:

One of the reasons digital technology is so exciting is because every individual has access to a multitude of creative tools and just as many ways of reaching a huge audience. From simple photoshop jokes to short films or even feature films, we are living through a revolution in creativity, and parody is an important part of that revolution. Now, as someone who works in what is sometimes called Old Media, I have a layer of lawyers between what starts on the page and ends on the screen, but most don't. As a result, I see too many examples of funny, creative parodies forced off the Internet for no good reason.

I hope politicians are brave enough to ensure that, through a new parody exception, we have a copyright law that allows aspiring comedians to make the most of the wonderful opportunities of the digital age.

Rob Manuel, editor of B3ta.com, and the B3ta creative community:

For the last ten years I've co-run a website called B3ta.com. Our site does 15 million pages per month and our newsletter is read by over 100,000 people.

B3ta.com is about grassroots creativity, encouraging people to pick up the tools of the internet and use them to make jokes, entertain each other and ultimately help people flower their creativity into new careers. Along the way we've played a part in the careers of a generation of people who are the bright new talents in the UK's creative industry. Our alumni include Ben Wheatley, one of the most feted directors of recent years who has just had a hit film with Kill List, music producer Swede Mason who has taken his mash-ups into the top 40 and figures like Joel Veitch, Jonti Picking and Cyriak whose animations have become a mainstay of advertising.

In the ten years of B3ta we have had various problems with lawyers and copyright holders. Unfailingly business uses copyright to suppress criticism and humour, so we're very excited by a new exception for parody and pastiche. This would be enlightened policy making.

Those who can afford lawyers use copyright to shut down legitimate criticism. We fully support the proposed move to allow parody and pastiche to be exempt from copyright. This would be sane and fantastic policy. We hope the government does the right thing.

Campaigners including Greenpeace and Campaign Against the Arms Trade (and Open Rights Group) said in a letter to the government:

Exceptions for commentary and criticism already exist. But these do not go far enough. Parodies are one of the most effective means to campaign, and should be a vital tool for civil society and campaigning organisations. Copyright without a parody exception amounts to an over-regulation of our activity. It too often inhibits our work, resulting in a chilling effect including a fear of developing effective parody campaigns and, when we do, 'take downs' of our content.

This is why we support moves to establish an exception for parody within copyright law. Such an exception would provide greater legal certainty, especially important for smaller organisations, and make it clear that copyright cannot be used as a weapon to restrict legitimate criticism.

Alex Cox, director of the film Sid & Nancy:

The protection afforded to parody in the USA remains immensely important - I cannot legally draw and sell a picture of Mickey Mouse, but I can legally draw and sell a picture of Mickey Mouse drinking the blood of innocent artists and creators. To infringe upon this right as UK law currently does is morally outrageous and a breach of my freedom to speak, or write, or draw, or film as I see fit.

I actually find it pretty bizarre that just because something is considered funny (or, more specifically, parodically funny) it is deserving of more protection from draconian copyright law than something (whatever, a statement, a piece of art, a document) which is  'serious'. Commenting, sampling, building upon and creating derivatives is a basic fact of all artistic practice, not just parodies.

The rest of copyright law should be brought in line with the USA's approach to parody - artists need the freedom to create. These constant infringements of our creative and social rights by massive media corporations, and the continual extensions of copyright terms are censorship, impure and simple.


Wait. Haven't we been here before?

Yes. This is not the first independent review to arrive at these conclusions – the 'Gowers' review in 2006, for example, also proposed a parody exception. But intense lobbying from rights holders meant the proposals for this kind of sensible reform were dropped. Instead we got the Digital Economy Act.

That's why it's so important that people who care about this say so to the consultation team.


So get your skates on – you only have seven days left!

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