Why Do Copyright Protections Not Apply To Parody?

Copyright laws protect an intellectual property from theft by parties who are often seeking commercial benefits. Parody is the replication of a particular work, often copyright-protected, for exaggeration, the effect of which is often to critique the original work. In law, the phrase “fair use” is the legalized use of a particular work. What do all these definitions have to do with one another? It’s complicated.

Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. was the 1994 Supreme Court case that decided it all.

When rap music group “2 Live Crew” modeled a parody song after the popular Roy Orbinson song “Oh, Pretty Woman,” these legalities were as of yet undecided. That’s why 2 Live Crew’s manager actually approached those who had the authority to provide licenses for the Orbinson’s hit — a company called Acuff-Rose — to procure one for themselves. They didn’t want legal trouble when they released the parody. But they were denied the license for the song.

Because they didn’t want to give up on their parody, trouble was inevitable. They released “Pretty Woman,” which was an immediate success. They sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Predictably, they were sued by Acuff-Rose for copyright infringement. The suit named “Luke Skyywalker Records,” which was 2 Live Crew’s recording company as a defendant.

Much of the legal argument wasn’t based on whether or not 2 Live Crew had the right to make a parody of the song. That wasn’t contested by Acuff-Rose. The real problem was that 2 Live Crew benefited financially from the commercial sale of the parody, which potentially damaged the “Oh, Pretty Woman” brand. It’s one thing to parody art, they said, but to profit from it? That was something else entirely.

The District Court disagreed, ruling in favor of 2 Live Crew. But Acuff-Rose appealed the ruling, of course. The Court of Appeals argued that the parody stole the “heart” of the original content, which meant it was an “unfair use” of the original song. The fact that 2 Live Crew made a bundle in the process of selling the parody may have swayed the court’s decision somewhat. 

But an appeal can be appealed in this wonderful country of ours, and so the matter was bounced to the Supreme Court for the final word. The Supreme Court reversed the reversal, arguing that parody is parody whether the artists and commentators are making money or not. If anything, the popularity of the parody would only boost sales of the original song.