After the Conservative Chairman, Grant Shapps, tweeted an advert praising cuts to beer and bingo duty, Twitter responded with a series of spoofs ads that derided this seemingly clumsy attempt to engage with the working classes. So far, so normal. Pastiches of music, film and brand are an accepted and important part of online culture.
But the beer and bingo spoofs may be breaking the law. Unlike Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia and the USA, the UK does not have an exception from copyright law for parody. This means that thousands of us are engaging in illegal activity everyday. Upload a film of you singing Adele’s Someone Like You, create a Downfall spoof or make a meme based on a well-known advert, and you’re infringing copyright law.
No one is saying that artists should not be paid correctly but the fact that so many other countries have exemptions for parody suggests that there is little commercial damage to rights holders. In fact, a 2013 report Evaluating the Impact of Parody on the Exploitation of Copyright Works, commissioned by the Intellectual Property Office, noted that:
”There is no evidence for economic damage to rightsholders through substitution: The presence of parody content is correlated with, and predicts larger audiences for original music videos.”
So being sent up might actually make you more money in the end.
On a positive note, there is general agreement that the law needs to change. Two different reviews by two different governments have said as much and the coalition, in response to the 2010 Hargreaves Review pledged to introduce an exception for parody.
That was two and a half years ago. More recent promises to bring in changes before 1st April have also failed to materialise. More worryingly, if no action is taken in the next two weeks, it is likely that nothing will happen until after the next election. The next available parliamentary session in September will be dangerously close to the general election and no political party wants to upset a ‘rights holder’ aka celebrity who just might be willing to endorse you.
You can email Vince Cable to ask him what's happened to our right to parody here.
The need to protect satire is even more important in the run up to an election. Last December. Iain Duncan Smith was reportedly furious at a campaign created by Church Action on Poverty, which satirised the famous Saatchi and Saatchi Labour isn’t Working poster, produced for the Conservative party in 1979. The updated version, Britain’s isn't Eating, brought public attention to the issue of poverty and the rise in the number of food banks. The campaign showed how effective parody can be in creating debate - especially for a small charity with a limited marketing budget, which doesn’t have the same access to journalists as a government minister.
But other organisations have had their campaigns stifled by rigid copyright laws. In 2011, Greenpeace produced a video that satirised Volkswagen’s ‘Star Wars’ adverts. The campaign aimed to raise awareness about apparent lobbying by German car manufacturers who opposed European legislation that would limit CO2 emissions. Just as their campaign gained momentum, the film was removed from YouTube for copyright infringement.
Even the threat of removal can chill free speech and denies campaigning organisations a vital tool for starting conversations that might change public opinion.
This is why Open Rights Group and a coalition of campaigning organisations that include Article 19, ActionAid UK, the Campaign Against Arms Trade, Church Action on Poverty, English PEN, Index on Censorship, Global Poverty Project and Greenpeace, are calling on Lord Younger and Vince Cable to take action now. If they don’t, it could be years before the law is changed. Now that would be a joke.