Intellectual property and cultural references

I’m wondering how cultural references get handled in IP and having difficulty finding an answer to the exact angle that occurred to me:

Let’s say you have a video game where a level is all about stealth. The developer titles that level: “How not to be seen”. If the player gets spotted, he quickly gets killed and the death screen reads: “This demonstrates the value of not being seen”.

It’s a pretty obvious reference to Monty Python and would be fitting for a level which emphasizes stealth. But would it be a violation of intellectual property in the US?
Along the same lines, if a character in a TV show has for personality trait that he’s a bit of a meathead and likes dropping Schwarzenegger quotes like “Stick around” and “I’ll be back”, not to parody the movies but because the meathead character thinks he’s being cool and the TV show writer wants to try out some intertextuality, would that be a violation of IP?

You’re allowed to quote someone else’s work, as long as you don’t take too much. As to how much is too much, that’s one of those things that doesn’t have an exact formula. A quote is fine, structural elements not fine.

If I play a bit of a Beatles melody in a guitar solo on my original tune, that’s a quote. If I build a tune around a Beatles melody, that’s structural.

“Violation” of intellectual property isn’t simply an abstract concept. IP comes operational when someone is deprived of what they otherwise would gain from their efforts. I don’t really see that happening in these examples.

It depends on how much the work is original, and how much it is simply parroting (This parrot is dead!) the original(s). How much is too much? That’s ultimately up to a judge.

When the original Battlestar Galaxative first came out, the Lucas empire tried to shut them down… tiny spaceships from a mother ship zipping among each other, having dog fights? Reams of bad guys in full body armour? Sounds too much like Star Wars. While it’s true it was a rip-off, it was not explicitly identical enough and in fact the overall story was quite different.

Plus, if the guy’s being funny (or we are mocking him) for trying to appear “cool” by being Ahnold Incarnate, then - parody is protected from copyright violation claims.

Somewhere, somehow I heard that you can use more than than the “standard” 15 seconds of a copyrighted video in a work as long as you either remove the audio or remove the video. I remember hearing that because apparently there was going to be an MST3k copycat around the late 90’s and the producers of the show didn’t want to pay the licenses to other movies, so they found out they could cut the audio track of the original movie and just do their own commentary over the entire thing (which is considered separate from a “Gag Dub” as it’s not actually replacing the original audio, just commenting on it)

Get back to fundamentals. Copyright law protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. I don’t know the Monty Python reference, so I won’t speak to that. But in the TV show example, a personality trait is not copyrightable.

There is no such standard; there is a wild proliferation of urban myths about copyright and what you can get away with, such as students thinking they can change “every third word” to copy an essay. I don’t know anything about the MST3K ripoff but am very dubious that you can redub an entire movie or ripoff the entire soundtrack.

To get back to the OP, it would have to be a pretty extensive pillaging of the original material to be vulnerable to a lawsuit. Allusions are totally OK. EG the movie Zootopia has an illegal lab with characters named Walter and Jesse. I seriously doubt any permission was requested or required. If the entire movie was an animal reenactment of Breaking Bad I think they’d be on thinner ice.

I have noticed the word “parody” is used rather loosely these days as people try to give themselves a shield of fair use when they are not really parodying the original, just ripping it off (this is especially common with songs on youtube where people give new lyrics to songs, they are not actually parodying the original, just creating a new copycat song, Weird Al style (but he always did get permission).

It really comes down to who bothers to sue and whether they think they could win. They’d have to demonstrate that their own work suffers, e.g., that people are confused and think the ripoff is part of their franchise.

One of the weird things about IP and copyright law is that there is no objective standard that says, “X is always permitted,” or “If you do Y, you cannot be sued.” These sorts of things just don’t exist. Instead, the court is asked to hear an argument for why the copyright holder believes they have been damaged and infringed upon, while the respondent will argue for why they believe their use was legitimate or not an infringement. The jury then decides which of the two arguments they find most compelling.

The question is not, “Did I meet X legal criteria?” but rather, “Would a jury agree that this is reasonable?” The standards that have grown up are based on the body of jurisprudence and precedent. So if someone says, “X is okay,” what they mean to say is, “Previous courts found X to be legitimate, so you have a strong argument that X is legitimate.”

There’s no such thing. If you are using a piece of video for demonstration or discussion, you should be prepared to defend that use as legitimate. What we see happening is companies will trawl Youtube looking for copyright violators, and the computers will detect unaltered footage and flag it as an IP violation. Then the company complains to YouTube and the video gets pulled. So people who make videos have to alter the footage or add some sort of discussion on top of it. The rule is not, “15 seconds of footage is okay,” but rather, “15 seconds seems to be the point at which the corporate lawyers get mad at us.”

Not quite. Rifftrax made downloadable audio files in which they riffed on the movie. It was then up to audience to acquire the video on their own, and play them both at the same time. Because the audio file was parody and did not contain anything from the original movie, they had a strong argument that they were not in violation

Of course, many enterprising young computer enthusiasts immediately downloaded the video and mated it to the new audio track. If they got away with it, it was likely because the copyright owners (A) didn’t know or (B) don’t care enough to bother.

Note that, while Weird Al does make it a point to get the original authors’ permission, he does that out of courtesy, not out of a legal requirement. He could (probably) stand up to legal challenges, if he did not choose to ask permission.

In fact, there’s at least one case where, due to a misunderstanding, he thought he had an artist’s permission but actually didn’t, and the artist was upset (“Amish Paradise”, parodying Coolio’s “Gangster Paradise”). But it still never went to court.

Like has been said above, it’s more about protecting yourself against law suits than a clear line. But I think Weird Al also does it out of genuine respect for the composers and a desire to play nice.

Considering Coolio sampled Stevie Wonder’s song “Pastime Paradise” to make “Gangster’s Paradise” it would have made him look pretty hypocritical to sue Weird Al. Copyright holders usually don’t sue unless it is a pretty egregious because the publicity of a suit can make them look bad.

He’d be on rock solid legal ground.

First of all, Berlin v. E.C. Publications gave people an absolute right to write parody lyrics to well-known songs, so Al’s new lyrics are not an infringement.

Second, you can use the music to any published song as long as you pay the appropriate BMI/ASCAP fees. Campbell v. Acuff-Rose further established this.

So if Weird Al wanted, he could rewrite the lyrics and give credit (and pay standard fees to) the original songwriter.*
*While Campbell v. Acuff-Rose was being litigated, 2 Live Crew (Campbell) duly mailed checks for the proper royalties to Acuff-Rose, who did not cash them.

An interesting example is the stage play “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” which features characters retelling the Simpsons’ episode “Cape Feare” (,_a_Post-Electric_Play). Per this article the play, though refers extensively to Simpsons characters and uses Simpsons dialogue, the playwright was assured by lawyers that there was no liability (and the play has in fact attracted no lawsuits).

In an engineering textbook back in the 1980s, there was an illustration labeled “Number 1: The Latch” which I always thought was a Monty Python reference.

In addition to keeping him on good terms with the artists he parodies, it benefits him financially. By getting explicit permission he’s able to get songwriter credit and associated royalties on his parodies.