January 09, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

Giving copyright a sense of humour

Today, we're launching a website and campaign calling for a new exception to copyright law for parodies and pastiche. Here's why.

Late last year we heard about a video parodying the Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville. It featured the two cycloptic cartoons flying off a rainbow into the middle of a riot. Having become the number one comedy video on YouTube the day it was released, it was forced off the Internet by legal threats from lawyers representing the Olympics.

The story seems to encapsulate the problems of parody and copyright law. The Olympics will draw on huge amounts of public money and affect many people's lives across East London and beyond. Whether the Olympics is good, bad or both, it is a hugely significant event whose impact should be open to a robust public debate. It will tell a story about the UK and the people in it. Some businesses are allowed to associate themselves with this story by trading on powerful Olympic images and branding. Those organisations will be trying to suggest to us that we eat, drink, wear or use their products and services.

For everyone else, genuine engagement with the meaning of the Olympics is heavily regulated. Copyright is one tool that can be used, and is being used, to stifle efforts to engage with that story - to use the signs and symbols associated with the Olympics to say something different about what the occasion will mean for the people affected. As one of the creators of the parody told us:

As comedy writers our first intention was to make people laugh. But the glaringly obvious hypocrisy in staging a billion pound event at a time of austerity and social unrest was a satirical gift. I find it outrageous and more than slightly comical that an organisation this large can be so concerned with crushing something so small as a Mother's Best Child sketch. Does it surprise me that the creators of the London 2012 mascots don't have a sense of humour? Erm, no.

At the moment, parodies of copyrighted films and music are not currently allowed under UK copyright law, unless you have the permission of the person who owns the copyright.

The result is that too often copyright is used to to stifle activity that we should be encouraging. Whether it is Greenpeace's parody of a Volkswagen advert, the many parodies of the German film Downfall, or the above Olympics parody, the work that suffers is often trying to make a point, to engage with an important issue of public interest, or to just poke some fun. Sometimes the works betray the developing creative talents of their creators. The story of B3ta.com shows that allowing people to use the creative works around them can be an important way for people to learn skills they can later benefit from. B3ta has been something of a training ground for some now well established creative industry artists, but have repeatedly fallen foul of copyright law.

The question is simply this: would we rather encourage this kind of creative activity, or discourage it? If it is the former - which is what we think - then the law needs to change.

Help us give copyright a sense of humour

That's why today we are launching a campaign for a new exception to copyright law for parody and pastiche. The exception was recommended in the recent independent review by Professor Hargreaves, and the government are currently consulting on how they should follow his ideas. If framed correctly, this should bring significant benefits for our ability to be a part of the cultural conversations around us. And just have some fun.

We need to tell policy makers now that copyright needs a sense of humour. And we need your help to do so. First, please think about signing our petition here. Second, if you make parodies and have had problems with copyright law, please get in touch. And do consider making a parody yourself and adding it to our Flickr group.

Finally, we'll be making our submission to the consultation soon. We'd encourage you to do so too, especially if you have been affected directly by this issue. We will post ours up on the website in case it helps.

Oh, and tell all of your friends.

Comments (6)

  1. Gareth Edwards:
    Jan 10, 2012 at 07:42 AM

    This sounds a good plan, but I think you need to define parody. Are you including changing lyrics to an existing tune?

  2. Sam Friendlyside:
    Jan 10, 2012 at 08:42 AM

    I disagree.

    One of the main reasons copyright exists is to protect intellectual or intangible ideas and work to the benefit of the creator. The current status quo of having to seek permission before a parody is published surely respects the creator's work, holds an inherent quality control and ensures that plagiarism isn't passed off as pastiche.

    Parody and pastiche have always started outside of the mainstream, so the 'rogue' or unauthorised pieces will still exist and will only stop with cease and desist orders. These pieces will always have an audience may build to a point where the copyright holder does allow publication.

    A sense of humour is a great thing to have and share, but does not intrinsically give someone the right to make profit from, self promote or openly mock someone else's work by rehashing that material without permission.

    Should I be allowed to gain personally or find a public voice by augmenting another's work without seeking permission? No. Should parodists push the boundaries and engage their subjects - only if it's not too much trouble.

  3. Paul:
    Jan 10, 2012 at 02:05 PM


    I don't see why someone shouldn't be able to make a profit by openly mocking someone else's work without seeking permission.

    Few people would question say Rory Bremner's right to earn money parodying an individual's mannerisms, speech or personality. Why should it be any less acceptable to parody an individual's work?

  4. Sam Friendlyside:
    Jan 11, 2012 at 09:05 AM

    I don't see the two as directly comparable.

    Why should someone be able to copy, manipulate and republish large portions of someone else's work that has taken years of experience and skill to produce, only to lose control over the message, audience and financial renumeration. The 'original idea' is hard to come up with, and by definition a parody must closely assimilate it.

    Can I just publish three novels ripping off the story-lines of say, Harry Potter, and justify it by changing the names and throwing in some jokes? If I'd spent ten years crafting a fictional world like that only for someone to capitalise on the book's success by boshing out a parody in a couple of months, I'd be a little peeved - particularly about losing control of the direction of content. Say I'd just designed a new logo for a social concern, then a far right group augments the design, calls it a parody and publishes it everywhere. I'm now associated (indirectly) with a group I want nothing to do with.

    Why is that intellectual property less valuable or recognised than if someone spent ten years designing a new piece of software or hardware, only for cheap imitations to be produced elsewhere.

    Allowing parodies and pastiches outside of the current status quo would create loopholes and not serve the greater good of creativity. There is a place for having a dig at people, and having a laugh. If it's funny enough then the original copyright holder can legally allow it - tell me the benefits of changing this system.

  5. Paul:
    Jan 11, 2012 at 03:45 PM

    Well if you did that you might be accused of plagarism of JK Rowling and/or Michael Gerber :)


    As for whether determining whether something is funny enough, who would decide that? I don't think a copyright holder or a judge should be the arbiter of whether something is funny.

  6. Sam Friendlyside:
    Jan 11, 2012 at 05:42 PM

    Fair play, though I'm interested to see if it was approved. Perhaps she conceded that it was good enough, or it wasn't crossing existing laws.

    So - the argument to support the change in the law is that it would be "less stifling" to parody writers?

    Do we want to make it easier to mock someone? The VW/Greenpeace example was still "the most shared 'ad' in the world" - so it worked with existing rules. If freedom was given to everyone to parody anything, would it just be left to the internet community to decide if it was in good taste / suitable / correct? Genuine question. I don't see a strong enough case to open the flood gates.