Stuart Whitwell - joint managing director at Intangible Business: Less laughter from businesses under new parody laws.

Under new legislation from the European Copyright Directive, the right to parody copyrighted works is now permitted, so long as it is fair and does not compete with the original version. However, this legal modification could adversely affect the brand image and reputation of many businesses and individuals in the EU and consequently impact their brand value.

Whilst parodists often feel their work is humorous, its tone and content can severely damage a brand. The challenge caused by the right to parody is the degree of subjectivity in distinguishing what is light-hearted fun and what can be considered a witch-hunt to damage a brand or reputation. A company’s brand image can easily be tarnished by an effectively executed parody; proliferating negative publicity and in turn negatively affecting consumer perception of the brand, product, service or even a celebrity’s reputation.

Not all parody is intended to be malicious, and therefore the changes in EU copyright law will no doubt prevent costly lawsuits being brought against YouTube contributors and bloggers who use parody to produce entertaining content for their followers. Popular parody creators Cassetteboy stated “Although it will be legal for us to make these mashups, the rights holders still won’t be pleased... Even though it’s legal, it’s still going to annoy a lot of powerful people”. This establishes that some artists are intentionally creating parodies to cause controversy, which may result in reputational loss for the targeted brands.

Prior to the changes in legislation, the likes of Cassetteboy and other parody artists constantly feared being sued for copyright infringement. Whilst few were actually taken to court, perhaps due to the fact that they had not monetised their work, many were served with takedown requests, including Cassetteboy vs. Nigella and the Welsh parody version of a Jay-Z and Alicia Keys song, named Newport State of Mind. This legalisation has been seen as a victory for freedom of speech.

Cassetteboy was seen to almost celebrate the new law by releasing a controversial video called “Cameron’s Conference Rap” to coincide with the Prime Minister’s party conference speech. The mash-up shows five years of conference speeches from David Cameron and mocks the heritage values of the Conservative Party, making outlandish statements such as “I am disgusted by the poor.” Within a week, the video had accumulated 3.5 million views with Cameron’s real speech only receiving 44,000 hits, highlighting the reach and popularity that parodies can have.
Although there has been no formal response from David Cameron, it is clear that parodies commenting on politics, such as this, are bound to impact the reputation of the Prime Minister, even though the piece is intended to be purely satirical.

Organisations have also been able to exploit the new parody copyright laws for their own causes. Rather than focusing on producing humorous parodies, animal rights group PETA have targeted Fortnum & Mason in an attempt to encourage people to boycott the shop for selling foie gras. By producing an altered Fortnum and Mason’s website under the URL force fed and murdered, the animal rights activists hope to highlight the cruelty involved in producing foie gras. Mimi Bekhechi, a PETA director, said: "Fortnum & Mason's image has already been tarnished by its sale of foie gras, which is so cruel that its production is banned in Britain, and now we are bringing further attention to this by using another British value: ridicule." The technique has effectively been used by PETA US, where the parody is covered under the Fair Use Act.

Parody can be seen as a form of art, and just as art is subjective, so too is the legality of these newly emerging parody sketches. Whilst many believe their use of copyrighted material is now protected, what must be highlighted is that parody is only a legitimate defence if deemed funny enough and non-discriminatory.