In at least a few posts advocating for the right of the copyright holder to control the use of works for reasons other than money, I have raised hypothetical scenarios in which particularly odious entities make use of works in ways that are uniquely offensive to the soul of the original. Most recently, I employed such hypotheticals on the subject of compulsory licenses, which would compel music rights holders, for instance, to allow any use of their works as long as the use is compensated. I argued that this strips the creator of one of the most basic rights of copyright, which is the right to choose the manner in which his/her expression is used, except for of the types of uses typically protected by the doctrine of Fair Use. So, along comes a real-life example of the dark side of remix culture and the kind of cultural gaffes we might get in a world where all works are fair game.
It looks like members of the Westboro Baptist Church cobbled together the six functioning brain cells in the group and scrawled out some clever new lyrics to accompany Paul McCartney’s famous melody “Hey Jude.” For your listening and viewing pleasure (or nausea), I offer “Hey Jews,” sung by the men, women and, yes, children of what I assume to be the Westboro Baptist Church choir. Drawing upon the favorite theme of killing their savior, the Wesboro Baptist version of this song, originally composed as a ballad of avuncular tenderness for young Julian Lennon, is an anti-semitic screed I suspect most people would ignore, except of course that guys like me will call attention to it. So, why am I doing that?
Because the video in all its ignorant glory serves up some interesting gefilte fish for thought, if you will. First, I have no idea whether or not Sony/ATV will take any action against the WBC for infringement, although they could; and if they did, I don’t think a judge would rule this video to be a fair use. This has nothing to do with its offensiveness but rather with the fact that the revised version does not lampoon the original work itself. Simply taking a known song and changing the words does not make the new work a parody of the original. For instance, Weird Al’s “Word Crimes,” which is a fantastic new hit based on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is not a parody of that song. So, why does Al get to use it? Because he got permission and paid for the use, the permission being the more socially important of those two steps.
Sony/ATV may not sue simply because the Wesboro Baptist Church is so universally reviled and ignored that they may just let the infringement go rather than make a case out of it. But alter the situation just a bit, and the scenario might look very different. Imagine the rights holder is still the author of the music and not as galacticly famous as Sir Paul, and the offensive derivative is made and promoted by a more prominent group. Does that skew your idea as to how much power the rights holder should retain to prevent such a use? Some will call this song/video free speech, but I say free speech gives the Wesboro Baptists the right to write, record, and publish their own offensive idiot song, but not a right to use someone else’s work as they see fit. Because in a sense these neanderthals are speaking with just a little bit of Paul McCartney’s voice, never mind desecrating the very personal reason he created the work in the first place.
I understand this song’s influence in the world will be zero. Likewise, neither the original work nor its author will be harmed by this association such that anyone is going to assume McCartney endorses the Westboro Baptists. But change the players in an otherwise similar story, and harm is possible. Hence, preserving the copyright holder’s choice to sanction, prevent, or ignore certain uses is actually more important in the digital age than it ever was. Because now any idiot can broadcast, and any idiot will.