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 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.┬áThe 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.