Parodies and Plagiarism

How close can a parody come to the original before it’s plagiarism? I imagine there’s no clear line, though.

There probably is no clear line, although I would think a strict definition of plagiarism is copying large chunks word-for-word.

I belong to an internet humorist’s group, and a couple of our members were plagiarized by a columnist in, of all places, Malta. He had been forced to change a few things either for regionalism or because a couple of the people he ripped off were women. For instance, one woman had written a column about panty liners, and, of course, the guy had to take it out of the first-person experience and put an objective spin on it. But still, wholesale paragraphs were lifted, word for word. There was no doubt he stole columns from my colleagues and passed them off as his own work.

Parody has to approximate the real thing, otherwise it will lose its impact. It may be as easy as using the same meter and opening line of a poem (“Twas the night before Easter, when all through the place, the Bunny was found to have egg on his face”).

Or it may go further, using actual music and arrangements of specific songs. I’m thinking of Weird Al, although I understand he contacts the artists for their permission before proceeding. Still, you don’t have to get permission to use a melody, I believe, since the lyrics make it obvious it’s a parody. And, while I haven’t checked, I would imagine that a parody artist, such as Weird Al, would credit the composer of the music, and take credit for the lyrics himself. (“I’m Fat” lyrics by Al Yankovic, music by Michael Jackson)

I don’t have a legal answer, but my guess is, it can come pretty darn close and still be protected as parody.

Wierd Al has generally been very concientious about obtaining permission because he wants to maintain good working relationships with the industry. That’s why I tend to believe him regarding the Coolio flap over “Gangsta’s Paradise” -> “Amish Paradise” - he said that he believed Coolio’s people had given his people the go ahead[sup]1[/sup]. At the end of the day, no matter how much Coolio didn’t like it, he didn’t have a leg to stand on, legally. Everything Wierd Al has done could have been done with no permissions at all as far as the law is concerned.

[sup]1[/sup] - On top of which, both of them might be telling the truth - I can see some publicity flack of Coolio’s telling Wierd Al’s staff, “Yeah, go ahead” without bothering to consult with Coolio himself.

Weird Al is just itching to do a boatload of Prince songs. Prince won’t give his blessing, but, as mentioned above, he would be unable to do anything about if Al decided to do them.

Makes you wonder if Al has a stash of songs he’s already done.

The story I read about Coolio was that Weird Al asked his manager to ask Coolio for permission, and his manager told him that Coolio said yes, without ever having asked him.

Regarding plagiarism, it does not have to be a word for word copy to be plagiarism. Stating facts in a paper without citing your sources, for example, is plagiarism.

The Supreme Court has upheld the right to create parodies and satires numerous times. If the intent of the artwork (for which there is no scientific or legal test other than common sense) is to mock the original, then it’s protected speech. Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell know a lot about this topic. :smiley:

Facts in and of themselves do not have any copyright protection. If you don’t cite your facts in a paper, the professor may decrease your grade, but plagiarism is reserved for stealing the way facts are expressed.

The recent flaps over plagiarism by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose occurred because they took entire sentences and paragraphs from other books and did not put quotes around them, even though there may have been a cite to those books in the footnotes.

Taking another person’s words without adequate indication that that is what you are doing is plagiarism. What the OP described sure sounds like plagiarism to me. But who knows what the courts in Malta would decide?

Listen to “Traffic Jam” from the Alapalooza album. While it’s not a direct parody of any particular Prince song, it’s obviously a play off the Prince style. Similarly, “Dare to Be Stupid” is a Devo style-parody, and there are others.

Well, it never got that far. The true authors of the original pieces had documentation that the work was theirs, and the other members of the group bombarded the newspaper with emails demanding that all this crumb’s “work” be expunged from their website.

We got an email in return from the editor, saying he had no idea, he was shocked, the columnist was not on payroll, but rather a regular freelance contributor, his name and columns were being removed from their site, and the likelihood of him being published by their paper again was about as good as Al Sharpton being elected Grand High Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Well, musical parodies are an easy case: you can “steal” any song, and change its lyrics in any comic way you like… but you have to pay royalties to the original songwriter, just as you would if you did a faithful cover version of that song.

In other media, the standards aren’t so clear. Take movie parodies- are you aware that Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers, the leading parodists in Hollywood, actually bought the rights to an old B-picture caled “Zero Hour,” when they were making “Airplane”? The basic plot of Airplane" is exactly the same as that of “Zero Hour,” and they figured it was safer to pay or the fil rights than to take a chance that they’d be sued for plagiarism later.

So, in the movie business at least, it’s not safe to apropriate a plot… even if your intent is puely satirical.

And we saw recently that the law isn’t completely settled with regard to books. “Gone With the Wind” is still not in the public domain, and when a satirist was trying to publish a parody (“The Wind Done Gone”) she used all of Margaret Mitchell’s characters and her basic storyline. As it turned out, there were numerous legal obstacles… though the book WAS eventually published.

However, there is NO doubt that PART of the reason that parodist won her case is that GWTW is viewed wth such disfavor these days, and the racism of that book seemed, in any minds, to make it fair game for attack. But would a more sympathetic, contemporary author get more slack?

Example: suppose I was outraged by Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter series, and I wrote a novel about Dr. Lecter. A novel that recounted all the gruesome crimes in the Thomas Harris novels. Only in MY version, Lecter is a bumbling putz, FAR from the suave, intellectual portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.

If Harris got mad and sued me, would I win? I doubt it.

But wait… what if I didn’t call the character Hannibal Lecter? What if I went the Mad Magazine route, and called him Horrible Blecchter? What then?

Anyway, while Weird Al Yankovic can sing ANY song he likes, so long as he pays for the privilege, satirical filmmakers and novelists don’t ecessarily have it so easy. They may have to wait few years, for their subjects to fall into the public domain (Mel Brooks could do as he pleased with Dr. Frankenstein, and a future satirist could write a detective novel portraying Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as gay lovers, with no problems).

Any long-time Mad aficionado knows about the lawsuit brought against the magazine in the early 60s by Iving Berlin and several other heavyweight music publishers, because of a MAD songbook bound into The Worst of MAD No. 4.
The trial court (Irving Berlin et al. v. E. C. Publications, Inc.) ruled that such parody was not plagiarism.
The publishers appealed to the Circuit Court, which ruled entirely in favor of Mad; and the U. S. Supreme Court, in turn, upheld the Circuit Court’s ruling by declaring “certiorari denied”–that is, the highest court declined to hear the case.
When the Milli Vanilli case did go to the USSC, I got a flier in the mail from Capitol Steps, which has me on their mailing list. They wanted to present an amicus curiae brief to the Court; I offered the Mad example above as a federal-court precedent.

For those of you who are really interested how this works legally, here’s probably the definitive case, straight from the Supremes:

Roy Orbinson suing 2 Live Crew over a parody of “Pretty Woman.”

Like the Starr Report, it is pretty amusing to watch geriatric blue-noses write about lude & crude matters…

On the Clerks Uncensored DVD, there is a high school reunion episode. In Randal’s yearbook, there is a picture of the famous Vietnam execution with Randal being the one holding the gun. On the commentary Kevin Smith says the first time they showed the episode to the ABC staff, the lawyers said the picture was copyrighted and its use was infringing. They went back and captioned the picture “Randal Graves–Best Hall Monitor Award”, and all of a sudden it was a “parody” and everything was keen.