Two things that suck about Intellectual Property Law this week

Earlier this week I heard Seth Green on Fresh Air, talking about his new stop-motion sketch comedy show, Robotic Chicken. It debuted last week but I caught a rerun and enjoyed it. The show basically follows the model that Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, and MAD TV have followed for years -- a bunch of sketches making fun of pop culture, but the twist is that they use action figures, animation, and claymation instead of actors. Before the opening credits even rolled, the law got in the way. The show opened with a message saying what you were about to see was parody, which seems like an unnecessary opener to a comedy show. Then I remembered from the interview Seth Green said that before they could show a 30 second goof on the "This is your brain on drugs" commercial, they had to get an ok from The Partnership for a Drug Free America. Apparently, since they used the woman that voiced the originals, the phrasing and her voice were "the intellectual property of the organization" and the bit didn't get into the show until they signed off on it. What's shocking is that I've seen 3 or 4 parodies of this commercial on shows before and I doubt anyone ever had to ok it first. The Simpsons did a joke version of a Schoolhouse Rock song, parodying "I'm just a bill" with the original voice talent, and now I wonder if had to get ok first. The other sucky thing this week was when Sony got Beatallica's site shut down. Sony owns the rights to some Beatles songs and the guys in the rock parody group Beatallica sing send ups of Beatles classics, as if they were done by the guys in Metallica. They feature bits of lyrics from both bands along with lyrics they make up, and they play off The Beatles' melodies. It's a cultural mashup of 60's rock and 80's metal and it's a rocking good time. They don't charge for their songs and freely give them away online, so when they had hosting problems last year I volunteered to be a mirror for their first two albums. Now that Sony convinced their host to shut off their account, I'm one of the few places to find it and I hope Sony doesn't strong arm my host as well. Their work is non-commercial parody and I would think they were safer than a band like Dread Zeppelin or Mini Kiss that does shows for money, but Sony doesn't like parody works that build off their property, so they're offline for now. I love comedy, and if I had a sketch show or a jokey band, I would never in a million years think that I have to ask for permission before I make a work parodying something from pop culture. What if the Partnership for a Drug Free America didn't like Seth Green's fake anti-drug commercial? Since when does the subject of a joke get to decide when and how you get to tell it, and since when do they employ lawyers to decide that? So much of comedy exists in order to poke fun at our culture and these two examples make me think that lawyers using intellectual property law may have disastrous effects not just on culture and comedy, but on everyone's freedom to say what they want in the future. update: The National Prostrate Cancer Coalition issued a press release playing off another bit from the same first show, where Optimus Prime gets prostate cancer. Kudos to them for having a sense of humor about the whole thing.