Goldieblox vs. the Beastie Boys: A Parable on Permissions

Monica Corton

When a song becomes forever connected with a product, particularly with the use of a parody lyric, it's deemed “baked” or “overused”.

Above: Press photo of Beastie Boys. Photographer unknown

Now that the Beastie Boys have gone on the offensive for the unlicensed and unauthorized use of their song “Girls”, written by Adam Horovitz and Rick Rubin, as used in the Goldieblox viral video campaign to feature their girls toy line... let’s try to unpack what actually happened and why songwriters and music publishers firmly believe that this was not a fair use.

The introduction to the fair use section of the Copyright Act states that “[T]he fair use of a copyrighted work * * * for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

Many siding with the argument that the Goldieblox viral video of “Girls” was a fair use were focused on the “comment and criticism” aspects, because this advertisement for toys was cloaked in a social justice message about girl empowerment. However, after all the excellent video footage showing the power and possibilities for girls, a big Goldieblox logo pops up on the screen in the last few seconds of the viral video.

This is apparently a trend in advertising. According to Roo Ciambriello in this Adweek article, it’s an advertising strategy now to “sell product by convincing your target market that you are more invested in contributing to emotionally charged, globally relevant women’s image issues [or, in Goldieblox’s case, “girl empowerment issues”] than you are in advertising your product.” A Pantene shampoo commercial does the same thing, but its social justice message is the role of women in the workplace and how they are judged differently from men.

Promo still from Goldieblox commercial

With this new trend of “social justice advertising”, the “purpose and character of the use” start to break down. If the real goal of the “Girls” viral video were truly about girl empowerment, why would they need the logo of Goldieblox in full screen at the end of the video? If there was no logo at the end of this video, then it would be a better argument for a fair use of “Girls”, but that is not how the viral video was presented. If Goldieblox was that socially concerned about girl’s ability to engineer products, why aren’t they giving their toys away for free?

Parody lyrics in commercials are not transformative. I know this to be true because parody lyrics are used in commercials all the time and I license them quite frequently. The use of parody lyrics in commercials en masse began in the early '80s when advertising agencies decided to shut down their jingle writing businesses and use popular music to help sell and brand products. Sometimes they used the song as originally recorded, but many times they change the lyrics to suit the advertisement. One of the oldest examples that I was able to find is a 1984 commercial for Joy Dish Washing Liquid.

However, there are dozens of parody lyric uses every year in the commercial realm. Here are but a few to represent the many:

"Addams Family Theme"/

"Da' Dip"/Zoopals

"Nobody but Me"/Little Caesars

"September"/Subway Restaurants

"Shake Your Booty"/Sensa

"Total Eclipse of the Heart"/Fiber One

As for the market harm (e.g., how this viral video use will affect future income for the song), beyond the fact that the Beastie Boys for years have never allowed their songs to be used in advertising, which is a kind of market harm, their future licensing uses in other types of synchronization uses were put in jeopardy by the use of “Girls” in the Goldieblox viral video.

When a music publisher licenses music for an advertisement, it licenses based on a specific period with no limit on the frequency of the uses during the term of the use. Therefore, advertisers usually saturate the market with time buys of the ad to get the most bang for the buck in the limited amount of time they have to use the composition in the ad.

In the case of Goldieblox, the “Girls” viral video was reaching a massive audience in a very short amount of time. There were over eight million viewings in the few weeks that the advertisement was on the Internet and those numbers most assuredly would have increased significantly due to the media blitz surrounding the infringement issue.

When a song becomes forever connected with a product, particularly with the use of a parody lyric, it diminishes a publisher’s capacity for licensing that work in television, motion pictures, videos and videogames because music supervisors feel that the song is “baked” or “overused” and that it would not be a fresh choice to utilize in other productions. This means the market harm is the actual advertising synchronization license fee that was not paid to the Beastie Boys, the potential loss of future income by being disregarded, overlooked, or rejected for future television, motion picture, video and videogame licenses and the fact that Goldieblox secured a Superbowl advertising spot via an Intuit contest using the “Girls” viral video as their contest submission piece.

An interesting footnote to this matter is that Debbie Sterling, President of Goldieblox who graduated from Stanford in 2005 and started Goldieblox in 2012, served as a brand strategy consultant for a wide variety of organizations including Microsoft and T-Mobile for the seven years in between her college graduation and starting her toy company. How could she not know about music licensing in the advertising sector with this kind of job experience? Wouldn’t she also know how to try to get around the law by claiming “fair use” in an alleged social justice based ad?

In addition, the law firm that represents her, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe conveniently slapped the declaratory judgment on the Beastie Boys immediately after it contacted Goldieblox to find out under what authority Goldieblox was using the song, “Girls". The judgment lists a litany of copyright holders related to the Beastie Boys including the original master recording, the publishers and the songwriters of “Girls” even though the original master was not used in the Goldieblox viral video. This would indicate Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe was worried about the market harm in the master rights as well as the publishing when it came to claiming fair use.

The aggressiveness in filing a declaratory judgment before the Beastie Boys even considered filing a copyright infringement case and the speed at which the declaratory judgment was filed, which included every potential person or company that had a claim, seems very calculating, as if the law firm was looking for the fight over the “fair use” issue in the area of advertising and the controversy would provide the firm with even more marketing power. In fact, Goldieblox had used another unlicensed copyrighted song, “We Are the Champions” in a previous viral video campaign, but it wasn’t as popular as “Girls” and its use never reached the massive market appeal that the “Girls” viral video achieved in an extremely short amount of time.

What is Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe? It's a global law firm with 25 offices in Asia, Europe and North America which boasts on the firm website the following: “In what is described as one of the most important copyright infringement battles in years, Orrick is defending DISH Network against claims brought by Fox Broadcasting and other major television networks on both U.S. coasts relating to DISH’s PrimeTime Anytime and AutoHop features on its innovative DVR system.” This case is also about circumventing creators’ rights, but in the realm of television distribution. Certainly, the idea that Goldieblox did not “know” that it needed a license seems hard to believe, considering Sterling’s business background and Orrick’s notoriety as a firm that focuses on copyright issues.

Although the Beastie Boys have settled their case with Goldieblox, I hope the issues surrounding it spark a dialogue, especially among technology and digital companies in the San Francisco area that seem to think copyright protection for their own intellectual property has a great value, but copyright protection for works of music is a big joke. We are not helping either industry’s businesses by constantly getting into legal battles over licensing when we all would be best served by building business relations and working together to foster productive businesses for our respective industries.

Monica Corton is Senior Executive Vice President of Creative Affairs and Licensing at Next Decade Entertainment, Inc., an independent music publishing company which she has been privileged to work at since 1991. Her responsibilities include signing new writers, negotiating, drafting and licensing all works published and administered by the company as well as overseeing the distribution of royalties. She has been a guest lecturer for the Association of Independent Music Publishers, the Copyright Society, the National Music Publishers Association, the Hartt School of Music, the International Intellectual Property Conference at Fordham Law School and the Cutting Edge Music Conference.

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