RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

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.