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Nov272013

“She’s Crafty”: GoldieBlox, Beasties, Copyrights and Codicils

Civil Litigation AttorneyIP Litigation

 

by Nicholas Kanter & Robert A. Hull, Esq.
November 27, 2013

In 1986, New York hip hoppers the Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill, the first rap LP to top the Billboard album chart, selling over 9 million copies in the U.S. One of the singles from the hit album was Girls. The song, in which the Beastie Boys sing about their affection for girls, is riddled with sexist lyrics, such as:

Girls - to do the dishes

Girls - to clean up my room

Girls - to do the laundry

Girls - and in the bathroom.

Seventeen years later, northern California toy company GoldieBlox Inc. is rewriting feminine roles, by selling toys meant to inspire young girls to construct, engineer and invent. The problem is they also rewrote the Beasties’ song Girls to market their products:

Girls to build the spaceship,

Girls to code the new app,

Girls to grow up knowing

That they can engineer that.

The rewritten song and accompanying video became a YouTube sensation, receiving over 8.5 million hits since being uploaded to YouTube on November 17, 2013.

In a lawsuit filed on November 21, 2013 in the Northern District of California, GoldieBlox claims the Beastie Boys threatened them with copyright infringement.

Rather than wait for the Beastie Boys to sue, GoldieBlox filed their complaint, seeking a declaratory judgment that their parody video does not infringe the rights of the Beastie Boys (and others that hold rights to the song), and constitutes fair use.

 

Fair Use: Is GoldieBlox's Version of Girls Defensible or Not?

 

GoldieBlox claims they created their song and video specifically to “make fun of the Beastie Boys song, and to “further the company’s goal to break down gender stereotypes and to encourage young girls to engage in activities that challenge their intellect, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.” 

Based on the underlying purpose of the song and its intended effect, GoldieBlox asserts their song is protected by the Fair Use Doctrine.  

Under the Fair Use Doctrine, certain uses of another's copyright-protected work may not be considered infringement if the protected work is used for purposes of “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…scholarship, or research”  ( 17 U.S.C. §107). Whether a particular use qualifies as “fair use” is determined by considering four “fair use” factors, which include:

  1. The purpose and character of use – how transformative is the new material? Does the new material add new information or understanding?

  2. The nature of copyrighted work – what is the value of the work vis-à-vis the core of the copyright’s protective purposes.

  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole – this factor looks at whether the quantity of the original work used is reasonable in relation to the purpose of the copying.

  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work – does the new material deprive the copyright owner of income in some way?

While GoldieBlox’s song by itself seemingly qualifies as Fair Use, the crux of the lawsuit (assuming it does not settle) will likely center on whether GoldieBlox’s use of the song to advertise and sell its retail goods causes the song to lose Fair Use protection.

 

A Brass Monkey in the Machine?

 

Complicating the matter further is the fact that one of the members of the Beastie Boys, Adam “MCA” Yauch, died last year leaving a will which provided that in no event may “any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes.”  Another fly in the ointment was the fact that apparently, MCA hand wrote these words on his prepared will near language which prohibited MCA’s image or name from being used for advertising purposes.

It is not clear whether the added language was part of the original will or was added later. If added later, such an amendment (typically called “codicils”) must be executed with the same formalities required of the will. Those formalities include executing the codicil in the presence of witnesses, etc.

Thus, if the handwritten language was added by MCA after the execution of the will, but for example without the presence of witnesses, it could be successfully challenged. However, there seems to be no mention in the press of a specific challenge to such language. Therefore, the language was likely present at the execution of his will.

Presuming this language was valid, in order for it to be enforceable in this case, obviously MCA must own an interest in the song (i.e., the interest must be part of his “estate”).

But, if MCA owned an interest but had previously transferred this interest into, for example, a living trust, the trust would be the owner, not MCA’s “estate”). If there was no commercial prohibition language in the trust, then the will language would not apply to prohibit commercial exploitation of the trust’s interest.

Also, this will restriction would apply only to the beneficiaries of Yauch’s estate. Absent an agreement to the contrary, joint owners of a copyrighted work have an equal right to license the copyright, provided that the other joint owners get their shares of the proceeds.

Thus, if there was not such an agreement between MCA and the other Beastie Boys preventing commercial exploitation of this song, the others could independently license the song to GoldieBlox, despite the prohibition by MCA, with MCA’s estate receiving its share of the proceeds. The prohibition by MCA would likely apply to the beneficiaries of his song interest, but would not be enforceable against the other joint owners.

From the published news reports, it appears as though the others do not wish to permit GoldieBlox to use the song in this manner.  So, MCA’s wishes may indeed be carried out.

However, if the will restriction is not enforceable, MCA’s heirs may be able to license the work commercially, despite objections from the other Beastie Boys.

Ultimately, it will come down to whether the GoldieBlox version is considered a “fair use” of the song. If so, MCA could not have prevented this commercial use while he was living and cannot prevent it after his death.

 

Nicholas Kanter is a Business and IP Litigation Attorney at our firm. Contact him via email: nkanter@lewitthackman.com.

 

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