Parody, copyright and schools: an 'exceptional' case

Marshall Mateer believes widening the copyright exception to include parody will send a positive message to future generations of creatives.

Image: elf parody by Marshall Mateer: CC-BY-NC-2.0-UK licence

Parody is a wonderful means of creative expression and learning and has been adopted in many areas of the school curriculum - in lessons concerning poetry, art, music, graphic design, technology, performance arts and media studies. As a pedagogical approach it is able to engage children of all ages and many types of ability. And of course parody, despite whatever impediments the current UK copyright laws put in its way, is an established part of our culture - from classical times through Dryden's 'mock heroic' and 'parodie' all the way to Laurel and Hardy's 'wild west'.

From T.S. Eliot with his "trousers rolled" to the Steamradio Goon Show, and from Tom Stoppard's 'Shakespeare in Love' to the Gogglebox Pythons. Today, Hollywood regularly parodies itself with such films as 'Not Another Teen Movie' and cyberspace is awash with millions of parody music tracks, videos and blogs. Parody has become a lingua franca in the world of advertising. Meanwhile in downtown 'Springfield' ('The Simpsons') just about everyone and everything in sight and hearing is parodied - 'Doh!'. Parody is alive and well and living in a screen near you.

While based on 'imitating' an original parody ensures not just the achievement of a 'copy', but a greater understanding of the original through careful study or deconstruction, added to the ability to transform selected aspects into new situations and contexts - creative expression emerging out of critical analysis. Parody overlaps with a number of other culturally embedded approaches - 'copying', 'in the style of...', 'homage', 'send-up', 'caricature', 'lampoon', 'satire', 'pastiche', 'spoof' and 'burlesque' but always eschews the uncool of 'plagiarism'.

In terms of the categories in the UK Copyright Act, parody can be applied to all of them: Literary texts (including code for say, games or characters in virtual worlds), artistic texts (inc photography and digital image manipulation), audio, music and film. While parody itself is media neutral the UK Copyright Act restricts copying for parody to 'old media' but excludes working with film and music - UK Copyright is sort of, well, media biased.

Copyright gives creators/owners certain rights over the 'expression' of an idea; rights that currently trump 'parody' in most media and casts a shadow over a more fundamental right; that of 'freedom of expression'.

And in schools what is learnt from activities that involve parody? Technical skills like copying, editing and publishing, the concepts of structure, narrative, characterisation and timing; understanding the rich language of the media; developing analytical and critical skills; presentation to an audience and receiving their feedback; negotiating the 'hyper' or 'sub' reality of virtual media with the experience of 'real life'. In short, key skills and understanding required by:

1) Many industries in the UK's creative sector - media, advertising, promotion, news and broadcasting, games, etc...

2) All citizens in today's digitally mediated world.

The act of 'copying' a painting using pencil or pigment, or of copying part of a poem by writing it down is permitted under the UK's Copyright Act but not when the copying becomes 'reprographic' (for 21st century speak, say "digital copy") - so Banksy's spray-can mischief is 'copyright OK', but perhaps not if he worked with video or sound.

The 'Hargreaves Review of Intellectual Property' (2011) - following on from The 'Gowers Review' (2006) - highlighted the use of parody as a vibrant and of-the-age way of learning brought about by digital technolgies and the open access of internet publishing sites such as 'You Tube'.

"Video parody is today becoming part and parcel of the interactions of private citizens, often via social networking sites, and encourages literacy in multimedia expression in ways that are increasingly essential to the skills base of the economy. Comedy is big business." (Hargreaves. Para 5.35)

The report cites the example of 'Newport - Ymerodraeth State of Mind' which represented a several-edged critical blade cutting into the unreal world of pop and the equally unreal world of Welsh stereotypes - leeks, rarebit, etc. The move from New York to Newport provided a nearer to home dimension in the presentation of young lives and their 'state of mind' in South Wales.

As the video went viral EMI waved the copyright infringement red card because it was based on the US single, 'Empire State of Mind' by Alicia Keys and Jay Z, and the video was removed. Only for the red card to be waived later and the video reinstated as copies of the parody and new versions proliferated and Comic Relief requested permission to do a celebrity version for charity. This series of events demonstrates that parody works and we all benefit - while copyright continues to confuse and, as a consequence, we all suffer.

Parody is permitted in other countries: for example, the USA allows parody as 'fair use' and Australia has recently included parody as an 'exception'. However, in the UK there is currently no exception and permission has to be sought of the owners and/or creators of the original material before a parody involving copyright material can be published. Well, you can but ask, and the owners might say, 'yes', or then again they might say, 'no'. They might require payment, or you might not actually ever find out who to ask in the first place; and by the time a reply is forthcoming the creative and contextual moment could well be lost.

Where copying for parody is permitted in other countries it isn't feckless; it exists within a framework of rules. The parodist must acknowledge the creator but not defame them, and these rules already exist within an EU directive as yet unsigned by the UK. This mode of working is familiar to all of us, for instance, cartoonist's may say "with apologies to Hogarth or Cruickshank or Picasso (who wasn't adverse to a bit of parody himself) or whoever". This is a historically established method of acknowledgement, attribution and respect for the original creator. If we built in a 'copyright exception' for the purpose of copying for parody, these moral rights would help to build a culture of respect within which everyone can work. It is copying for parody or pastiche - not just copying. For example, in the US the parody must be 'transformative' of the work, not just a copy of it - the rules could present a continual challenge to lazy plagiarism.

The current consultation managed by the UK IPO opens the way for the situation to be changed and copying for legitimate parody to become an 'exception' in the UK. There is a potential for a win-win situation for education and for skilling the future workforce by legitimising a proven pedagogical approach and an engaging curriculum activity embedded with good practices that would seamlessly transfer to the world of work and active citizenship.

That is if we let it happen; if we make legitimate copying for the purposes of parody and pastiche become a copyright exception. Legitimising ( = legalising) the practice would help build an ethical foundation on which all copyright might better work from and which might more easily engage the wider public and young people in respecting other people's work and in using the regulation of Intellectual Property and copyright better for their own work.

As has been noted many times now, Newport is not only a town in Wales and the setting of an excellent parody music video, but, it is also the home of the UK IP Office. If the opportunity is not taken now, as the rest of the world moves on, then, in respect of the principles and practice of parody and pastiche in the 21st century, 'copyright UK' risks becoming, dare we say, a parody of itself.

But a better result for all would be for copying to enable 'parody, caricature and pastiche' to become a 'fair dealing exception' in the UK working within a framework of requirements to respect and acknowledge the original creator, and challenge the parodist to a creative outcome.

Have your say: UK IP Office Consultation BTW it closes 21st march - so hurry!

Marshall Mateer's article also appears on his website Shapes of Time, produced to support learning about and fascination of a wide range of subjects.

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Comments (1)

  1. Louise:
    Mar 14, 2012 at 09:22 AM

    Parody with humorous intent was kick-started by JS Bach (the Peasant Cantata, taking the p* out of peasant songs). Mozart was a prolific humorous parodist: he took the rise out of bad composers and cliched musical forms.

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By Marshall Mateer on Mar 08, 2012

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