Thursday, June 5, 2008

Yoko Ono loses copyright suit over "Imagine"

The copyright laws are not absolute. Someone can use copyrighted materials provided it complies with the "fair use" rule. This rule protects the copyright holder from unauthorized exploitation of your creative expression but also allows everyone else to use portions of that creativity for other artistic purposes. So it's a battle between property ownership and free expression. Yoko Ono learned this the hard way on June 2, 2008.

The case is Lennon v. Premise Media, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42489 (S.D.N.Y. June 2, 2008). Yoko has exercised strict control over John Lennon's musical legacy ever since he was murdered in December 1980. That's a good thing. Beatles fans have been subjected to very few frivolous compilation albums and other marketplace garbage that can truly tarnish the legacy of an accomplished artist. So when she learned that conservative commentator Ben Stein was using portions of Lennon's classic song "Imagine" in a movie, "Expelled," promoting "intelligent design" over evolution, she brought a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement. The court ruled against her.

The movie features a few seconds of Imagine during a sequence that suggests that its utopian and anti-religious lyrics are consistent with totalitarian dictatorships. Of course, this use of Imagine is probably in violation of everything that John Lennon stood for. Probably what equally offended Yoko was that Imagine is one of John Lennon's most popular songs. But under the "fair use" doctrine, it's permitted, so long as the unauthorized use is "transformative." This means that they can use parts of the song in the interests of "criticism, comment, news reporting teaching . . . scholarship or research." It's the reason why book reviewers can quote from a book during a negative book review. In our case, according to the district court:

Defendants' use is transformative because the movie incorporates an excerpt of "Imagine" for purposes of criticism and commentary. The filmmakers selected two lines of the song that they believe envision a world without religion: "Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too." As one of the producers of "Expelled" explains, the filmmakers paired these lyrics and the accompanying music to a sequence of images that "provide a layered criticism and commentary of the song." The Cold War-era images of marching soldiers, followed by the image of Stalin, express the filmmakers' view that the song's secular utopian vision "cannot be maintained without realization in a politicized form" and that the form it will ultimately take is dictatorship. The movie thus uses the excerpt of "Imagine" to criticize what the filmmakers see as the naivete of John Lennon's views. Indeed, much of defendants' asserted purpose for
excerpting the song is apparent from a viewing of the movie.

The excerpt's location within the movie supports defendants' assertions. It appears immediately after several scenes of speakers criticizing the role of religion in public life. In his voiceover, Ben Stein then connects these sentiments to the song by stating that they are merely "a page out of John Lennon's songbook." In defendants' view, "Imagine" "is a secular anthem caught in a loop of history recycling the same arguments from years past through to the present. We remind our audience that the ideas they just heard expressed from modern interviews and clips that religion is bad are not new and have been tried before with disastrous results." The filmmakers "purposefully positioned the clip . . . between interviews of those who suggest that the world would be better off without religion and an interview suggesting that religion's commitment to transcendental values place limits on human behavior. .
. . mak[ing] the point that societies that permit Darwinism to trump all other authorities, including religion, pose a greater threat to human values than religious belief."

In other words, the filmmakers can use Imagine to suggest that Lennon didn't know what he was singing about in criticizing religion and that his point of view has proven disastrous. Beatles fans may be outraged over this argument, but it's not illegal for the filmmakers to use the song for that purpose. Since the movie promotes the concept that a God-like force created humanity as opposed to evolution, using a brief portion of the song is a "fair use," even though the song is put to use that contradicts its utopian expression.

1 comment:

Superswell said...

I'm not crazy about the context in which the song was used but as a fair use advocate, this decision makes me ecstatic. Put this one alongside Campbell v. Acuff-Rose in the win column for free expression and particularly artists that rely on cultural detritus and derivative media. Woohoo!