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How does copyright law apply to parody and satire?

It is common for some parties to use the text, pictures or logos of a California company while claiming that their depiction is intended to be humorous and thus perfectly legal. However, that might not always be the case, so if you find your IP being used by another party in this manner, you should understand how copyright law looks at works that are considered parodies and satires to see if you have a case.

According to the American Bar Association, the Supreme Court has validated the use of parody because it provides a form of commentary on an earlier work, and by doing so creates a new work. This is considered a “transformative” work which fair use allows for. Basically, a parody that samples another work and creates a transformative work is likely to be held as legally permissible under fair use. The more transformative the work is, the more probable it is that a judge will not have a problem with it.

However, the use of intellectual property in a work of satire is often another matter. In the 1994 Supreme Court case Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., the court drew a distinction between parody and satire, explaining that parody samples and copies another work to produce commentary, but satire takes another person or party’s work and uses it to criticize a different subject. Since the court does not see this as a transformative work, an act of satire requires justification, such as the permission of the copyright holder, for the IP to be used in satire.

Still, the court did not suggest that all works of satire are not permissible under fair use, nor are all parodies necessarily legal. A satirical work that samples another IP could be justified if consumers were not likely to be fooled into thinking the satire is a commercial substitute for the original IP. Satirical works might also be permitted if they sample very little of the original IP. Basically, any work of parody and satire is going to be evaluated by the requirements of copyright law and the justifications of fair use.

If you own an IP and find another party using it under the justification of parody and satire, be aware that you have recourse if you believe the other party is not using it in a legitimate manner under fair use. Check out this page on our website to learn more about the kinds of intellectual property protection cases handled by the Wang IP Law Group. Do not consider this article itself as legal advice. Only read it for your educational benefit.

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