RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Fair use and Youtube in Academia - 06/23/2021
A taskforce at the college is wanting to use a recent song and video on Youtube. This would be a t...
Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2021 Permalink


A taskforce at the college is wanting to use a recent song and video on Youtube. This would be a traditional lip dub with a little step up in production as they would use some greenscreen and use some face tracking to animate anti-racist quotes on the faces of the participants. They want to mimic some of the effects in the video as well as add some of our own. So it is transforming the work. Also, this would be a new creation based on the content of the video and use of the music.

In short, they are looking to do a lip dub of the song with their own spin on the video. The college has their own video streaming platform so this would not be on Youtube.
This would be for the campus community but there might be that people could share outside the organization.

The intent is to educate the campus and is part of a greater initiative to promote diversity equity and inclusion.


This submission is a "fair use”[1] question coming at us from a private college, so before we delve into a reply, I have to emphasize that the specific analysis in this case is limited to that type of entity (a private, accredited school).

Since it can get boring "emphasizing" disclaimers in prose form, I will emphasize it in verse:

          If ye a public library be

          This analysis is not for ye

          If a SUNY or public school

          Do not swim in this legal pool

Okay.  With that out of the way (and for those of you not put off by either the disclaimer, nor the crude verse), here is my answer:

Riffing on, parodying, and building on popular songs can be an effective way to convey a unifying or powerful message to a group.  The use of a known work of art can build on shared familiarity, while modifying it with a unique twist can create a unique and unifying experience. 

The technique described by the member is a very popular approach for higher education institutions, and for unrecorded performances/parodies/riffs that are done live on campus, the school's ASCAP/BMI may even apply (meaning, the site of the performance has permission).

Of course, this is 2021, and that means, it doesn't happen if it isn't on video (or in a picture).  And since we are still in the midst of a pandemic (although things are looking a tad brighter, here in May of 2021), having a video that is an experience customized, created and controlled by the school is a desirable way to build remote cohesion.

When considering the use of copyright-protected content without permission, there are two factors a private institution must consider:

1. Risk management

2. Copyright infringement

"Risk management" is not about the actual legality of one's actions, but the risk that one's actions will be observed and perceived as illegal.

In this case, the additional circumstances the member lists here (not using YouTube to post the final product) enables "risk management" in two ways: a) the resulting video will not be "purged" from YouTube due to a copyright "red flag" (which can happen even if there is a fair use); and b) by hosting it on a less popular server, it is less likely to be seen by services and bots that are "out there"[2] policing copyright laws.

But of course, an educational institution doesn't want to get away with infringement, it wants to not commit it.  And that is the essence of the member's question: is creation of this derivative work[3] a "fair use"?

In their question, the member has walked us through some of the "fair use" factors. The member identifies as an educational institution. The member states that the use of the work will be "transformative." The institution will use all of the audio, and be evocative of but different from the video.  And, although it is not specifically mentioned as such, the described use of the resulting derivative work will (clearly) not be a replacement in the market for the original.

What is missing from the submission is the consideration: why this particular work?  In order to justify a fair use-especially of an entire work (the audio), the use must not only be transformative, but there must be a reason why that particular work is chosen, and the message sent by the "transformed" work must relate to that reason.

In other words, you don't select the underlying work to re-transmit it at face value; you select the works to say something new, that at least in part, relates back to the riffed/parodied work.

The best example I have seen of this lately is a complete, unaltered use of the "Avengers, assemble," scene from the "Endgame."  The clip is exactly as it is in the movie, with no changes to audio or video, except the author puts captions near the various super-heroes as they show up, giving the characters new names, and drawing an analogy to how they saw the protests of 2020 developing. 

The end result of this modified "Avengers, assemble" clip is not only highly transformative--the clip is no longer in any way about the original superheroes--but the author uses the identities of the originals to make comments about both those iconic comic book figures, and the categorical names he ascribed to them.  It's such a good example, it could be used to teach "fair use" in a law school class (you can see it here, or just search "endgame protestors 2020 avengers" and it'll pop right up).

With regard to this use of audio and video, it is this question--why this particular work was selected--that is the missing piece of the puzzle.  So long as that piece fits in, there is a good claim for fair use.

If it is decided that there is a good reason to select the original work, the other thing to be cautious about is how the end result (the new video with the unmodified audio) is used.  If it is used only as described and is built into a structured discussion about equity and inclusion--especially if the lyrics and images are used as focal points in the discussion-there is a strong case that this is an academic, non-commercial use. 

However, we have to remember that at the end of the day, a college is a place where students pay to be.  If the video bleeds into recruitment materials, or is not coupled with the education/discussion, the more likely the use could be found to be commercial. 

So: the more "academic" the end result (and its context) is, and the more the initiative functions as both a comment on the source material, and its own, stand-alone message, the better.  Since fair use is not simply an additive analysis (it's not just one factor vs. another, but rather, how the factors resolve and then inter-relate to each other), every aspect of this is critical.

Within those parameters, and if care is taken so the video is only used in the educational context (not simply sending a link to it out in a newsletter, without the educational content and context), there is a strong case to make that the new video, inspired by the song’s current video and using that unmodified song, is not a copyright infringement. 

I am sorry I could not be more definitive...answers like this are why very often, people just ask for permission![4]

[1] I am going to jump right into this answer with the assumption that the reader knows the basics about fair use (Copyright Act Section 107).  If you don't know the basics of fair use, you can get the gist on in these "Ask the Lawyer" RAQ’s: https://www.wnylrc.org/ask-the-lawyer/raqs/43; https://www.wnylrc.org/ask-the-lawyer/raqs/78

[2] So I went to find an example of these "bots" and got more than I bargained for; here is an example of not only how video-sharing services shut down fair use on platforms like YouTube and Facebook, but a story about how this blocking is impacting how people film and transmit law enforcement activity: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2021/02/cops-using-music-try-stop-being-filmed-just-tip-iceberg

[3] A derivative work is a work that incorporates copyright-protected work.  The right to authorize derivative works is one of the six rights reserved to the owner of a copyright.  Parodies that incorporate or draw heavily from the original risk being "derivative works" (and thus infringement) unless they are 1) done with permission or 2) are a "fair use."

[4] For instance, Weird Al, although he could likely claim fair use for many of his parodies, always gets permission.

Tags: Academic Libraries, Copyright, Derivative Works, Fair Use, Music, Parodies, Streaming

Topic: Fair Use and Restrictions of Song Parodies - 4/16/2019
We are parodying words to a popular song to create a video celebrating our library's anniversa...
Posted: Tuesday, April 16, 2019 Permalink


We are parodying words to a popular song to create a video celebrating our library's anniversary. The song is 50 years old. We will be using the music but changing the lyrics. We will be videoing staff members singing. Can we post this video to our library website? Can we use it in public settings? Are there any restrictions on use? Thank you.


When this question came in, I called the member library to get a bit more information: What was the song?  Would the video would be used for fund-raising?   How is it being put together?

You know…boring lawyer questions.

Since libraries are NEVER boring, I of course got interesting answers and more information than I bargained on.  With the permission of the member, and since this answer is not confidential legal advice, I am going to share a dramatic re-creation of our discussion here:

LAWYER:  Hi!  I am Stephanie Adams, the attorney for the council’s “Ask the Lawyer” service.  I wanted to check in on a few things for your question here.

LIBRARIAN:  Oh! Thank you for calling. 

LAWYER:  My pleasure.  Now, I just have a few questions….what song are you thinking about using?

LIBRARIAN:  Well, our library is turning 50, and we want to celebrate it.  We thought we’d pick a song that was from the same year we started.  As it turned out, this was a bit difficult, because it’s a challenge to find a song from 1969 that isn’t depressing.

LAWYER:  An upbeat song from 1969?  Wow, now that I think about it, that probably is a tall order.

LIBRARIAN:  Yes!  But we found one.  “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies came out in 1969.

LAWYER:  Aha!  “Da da DAda DA da…”  Yes, that is catchy.  What are you thinking about doing with it?

LIBRARIAN: Well, we want to do a version that [REDACTED TO PROTECT SURPISE].  So, just like I wrote, we want to know if we can use the original recording for the music, or maybe just play our own version…one of our librarians is in a band.  And we’d like to put it on Youtube, or perhaps our website.  Or maybe just play it on computers in the library?

LAWYER:  Hmmm.  Do you plan on using it in connection with any fund-raising?

MEMBER:  No, no.  Just for fun and celebration.

LAWYER:  Okay.  Well, that’s helpful.  But I can see why you sent in this question.

LIBRARIAN:  Yes.  I know there could be some copyright issues.  But everywhere I look, I see libraries doing their own parody video versions of songs.  The ALA even did a parody of a Taylor Swift song!  So I figure, there has to be a way.

LAWYER:  Many ways, in fact.  And of course, just like you say, many, many, ways to have some concerns.  Okay, I need to hit the books.  I’ll be back in touch soon!




The first thing I did, after this call, was check out Youtube.  The member was right: the internet is alive with clever, original, library-produced parody videos!  How had I missed these?  I really need to crawl out of my law cave every now and again.

That said, after a few fun moments of sharing some library/parody videos with my office people, I crawled back into my law cave to address the question.

In general, what does a library making a parody video have to consider?

Although many people think doing a “parody” is an instant ticket to a Fair Use (section 107 of the Copyright Act) defense, the member’s caution was right-on: the use of a musical recording (which is also use of a musical composition and its written lyrics), must jump multiple hurdles before it meets 107’s criteria.

As Justice Souter put it in the famous “2Live Crew” case[1]:

Parody, like other comment and criticism, may claim fair use. Under the first of the four §107 factors, "the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature . . . ," the enquiry focuses on whether the new work merely supersedes the objects of the original creation, or whether and to what extent it is "transformative," altering the original with new expression, meaning, or message. The more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use. The heart of any parodist's claim to quote from existing material is the use of some elements of a prior author's composition to create a new one that, at least in part, comments on that author's work. But that tells courts little about where to draw the line. Thus, like other uses, parody has to work its way through the relevant factors. [emphasis added]

In other words, parody doesn’t mean an automatic ticket to a Fair Use defense; the new work has to create a new message while also partly commenting on the old.  This is a high bar, even when the other factors (like a non-commercial use) may be in a library’s favor.

2 Live Crew’s version of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,”  which used both the music and AND (some of the) lyrics of the original, hit that bar: “It is th[e] joinder of reference and ridicule that marks off the author's choice of parody from the other types of comment and criticism that traditionally have had a claim to fair use protection as transformative works,” wrote Souter in 1994. 

Only this “joinder of reference and ridicule” protected 2Live Crew as they made use of Orbison’s musical composition and lyrics.  Had they left that “reference and ridicule” out, had they simply recorded a cover version of the song and changed a few lyrics without engaging in true commentary about the original, that wouldn’t have had that protection, and their use would have been infringing.

So, when planning a parody video, a library has to be honest: is it a true parody allowing Fair Use, or is it a fun riff that should get a license? 

Using our “Sugar, Sugar” scenario, let’s explore the difference:

The original video for “Sugar, Sugar” shows Archie, Veronica, Sabrina and the gang at a fair in Riverdale.[2]  Archie’s band strums and sings “Sugar…Aw, Honey Honey,”  while Sabrina runs a kissing booth. The whole things is a montage of Sabrina transforming the attendees into various animals with her magical kiss (cost: $1.00).  It is charming (although of course rampantly sexist).

Now, for a comparison of a fun riff versus a true, Fair Use-defensible parody.

A fun riff on this cartoon music video would simply change some of the lyrics and create a new, non-referential video.  Perhaps the chorus, instead of “Sugar, Sugar,” would be “WorldCat.  Aww…WorldCat, WorldCat,” and the video would be a montage of people at computers singing about how exciting databases are.  It would be funny and make a point, but there would be no commentary on or ridicule of the original.

A fair use-defensible parody would go deeper, perhaps saying something like: “Budget.  Ow…Money, Money,” and the video would be a montage of librarians doing what it takes to raise money for supplies and transformative programming.  It would riff off the original to criticize budget cuts, but just as important (for our Fair Use analysis), it would be a comment on the exploitive but subversively transformative commercial nature of the kissing booth in the original.

Have I lost you yet?  I’m sorry.  Fair use is something not even federal judges get right, and the nuances of the case law make it a very unreliable defense for all but the most incisive parody-driven comment and criticism. 

The bottom line: When a library or other institution wants to do a fun riff on a song, the safest bet is to get a license.

So if your library decides your video will be a fun riff and not a fair use-packing parody, what are the options? 

The librarian mentioned another source in our discussion: YouTube.

YouTube has spent the last few years working with ASCAP, BMI and various other rights holders to license songs for their use on the video service.  Ads that run while YouTube videos feature these songs generate revenue that goes, in part, to the rights holders.  This enables “YouTubers” (i.e. content providers) to use the songs (although there are certain requirements for every license), and gives the rights holders a steady revenue stream.

I visited YouTube’s website and looked up “Sugar Sugar.”  Sure enough, “Sugar, Sugar” is licensed to YouTube for both direct play (i.e. to use as the music accompanying a video) or for a cover (for a YouTuber to generate and publish their own version of the musical composition).

Of course, any departure from the original recording or lyrics is not quite a “cover;” arguably, it is a derivative work, which is a separate right under the Copyright Act.  But when the YouTube license allows for either the song to be played, or a “cover” to be generated, YouTubers have a lot of options.  So whether the original version is used with fadeouts to the library’s custom recording, or the member library simply puts their voices over a copyright-protected musical recording, the YouTube license should cover it.

If YouTube is not your cup of tea, the other solution is to go to the rights holders (in the case of “Sugar, Sugar,” reportedly over 12 parties!), and ask for permission.  BMI has a license they offer to not-for-profits, which allows up to three songs per year at a rate of $00.08/1,0000 page hits.  This type of exercise could be tedious, but depending on what you want to do, could be the best option.

In Closing: A Comment About Fair Use

That said, I am mindful that an unacceptable by-product of all this “easy licensing” could be the erosion of Fair Use.  As just an example, one of my favorite parodies is a simple lip-synch and video re-creation of the Hall & Oates song, “Private Eyes”  (if you haven’t seen this, give yourself 5 minutes when you need a boost). 

Because of the keen mockery and recontextualization of the original video’s choreography and messaging, I would argue that, if sued, the parody’s creators would have a Fair Use defense.  But they don’t need one to make such a defense, because they operate with the YouTube license.   And their parody makes money for the song’s rights-holders every time the video is viewed[3].  That seems to be working out for everyone, but use of a work for legitimate commentary and criticism should not depend on the permission of the rights holder.

This is why all people who believe in the open flow of ideas and information must remain staunch defenders and users of Fair Use.  It is a critical asset that should be vigorously promoted whenever possible.

Thank you for a great question, and happy library-versary!

[1] CAMPBELL, aka SKYYWALKER, et al. v. ACUFF ROSE MUSIC, INC. (U.S. Supreme Court) No. 92-1292. Argued November 9, 1993 -- Decided March 7, 1994

[2] This was an enlightening moment.  I didn’t know that “Sugar, Sugar” was first played by comic book band “The Archie’s” on their TV show in 1969!  Or that “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (a staple of my ‘90’s young adulthood) made her debut in the Archie comics in the ‘60’s.  Really, until I got this question, I was horribly ignorant of a critical area of Americana.  I blame my parents, who only let me watch PBS and Canadian television during my childhood.

[3] Fair Use is alive on YouTube!  It just has to clearly meet the formula.  Check this commentary and criticism by “Ted in the Shadows” out; none of the samples in this cite a YouTube license: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OR53NMVQ19s

Tags: Copyright, Fair Use, Online Programming, Parodies

The WNYLRC's "Ask the Lawyer" service is available to members of the Western New York Library Resources Council. It is not legal representation of individual members.