Asked and Answered: Parody/Satire and copyright infringement.

Q:  When does a parody of someone else's material infringe on their copyright?

For instance, having a character use the Vulcan mind-meld in your story.  Changing some content within a Dr. Seuss story to create new characters but keeping the same meter, structure and rhyme.  Changing a word in a famous slogan to reinvent it.  Using your own artwork that mimics their artwork but altering the content.

A: The answer to this question is both simple and very complicated.  Simply put, if a new work copies the work of another, it infringes the copyright in that work… BUT, in the U.S., under the First Amendment protection of free speech, the fact that it's a parody immunizes the creator from liability.

The more complicated answer depends on the distinction between parody and satire. According to our good friend Wikipedia, A parody  is a work created to mock, comment on, or make fun at an original work, its subject, author, style, or some other target, by means of humorous, satiric or ironic imitation. Parody is protected as a form of “Fair Use”, a defense to claims of copyright infringement.  Cases dealing with this issue, however, look to how much of the original work is taken, holding that only that minimum amount necessary to “conjure up” the original work may be taken.  Courts have also held that the parody work must actually make fun of  the original work or its author.

Satire, (again according to Wikipedia) is primarily a literary genre or form in which  vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement.  Typically, a satire pokes fun at larger issues, rather than the original work or its author.   Satire is NOT considered Fair Use when it copies an earlier work.

Be advised, also, that where famous slogans and brands are involved, even a Parody may not be a defense to a lawsuit brought for dilution or disparagement of a trademark.

So, you'd be wise to consult an experienced, entertainment or intellectual property lawyer with your specific situations before publishing.

This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for readers’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.


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