Absurd Copyright Law Case of the Day

I’m visiting my parents’ house in Vermont, where they finally got cable after the provider agreed to dig up the ground and run a mile or so of cable to their house in return for a two year subscription agreement. (I think after two years the cable company will almost have broken even on the cost of the installation).

Having been absent myself from the cable world for some time, I am impressed by the variety of interactive and “on demand” options. My parents’ low-end package includes dozens of free on-demand movies and music videos, as well as built-in easy-to-use tivo-like functionality. The on-demand music videos show one brief ad before the video — it seems the tradeoff is that if you are really going to watch the ad, they can get more money and show you fewer ads. (Or, maybe I’m wrong — if it’s one ad per video, I suppose that would be more ads, but it feels like fewer because of the “on demand” nature. I guess it’s a perceptual trick.)

Anyway, getting to the title of this entry. Anybody in the field of intellectual property these days has got to find Weird Al Yankovic’s music video for Don’t Download This Song (warning, myspace page, authorized by Weird Al!) (or, here) (warning, YouTube page, also authorized by Weird Al!) at least a little amusing. If you haven’t watched it, see it now.

The opening verse goes like this:

Once in a while maybe you will feel the urge
To break international copyright law
By downloading MP3s from file sharing sites
Like Morpheus or Grokster, or Limeware or Kazaa
But deep in your heart you know the guilt would drive you mad
And the shame would leave a perminant scar
Cuz you’d start out stealing songs, then you’re robbing liquor stores
And selling crack and running over school kids with your car

On the cable video-on-demand channel, however, the names of all the filesharing services (Morpheus, Grokster, Limewire, and Kazaa), are all replaced with beeps, as if they were vulgarities unfit for broadcast. Or cable.

If you had never seen the video online, you’d actually be likely to think this was another Weird Al joke — that he can’t even sing the names of (the mostly now defunct) filesharing services publicly. But I’m pretty sure the video was censored by the cable provider or distributor and the irony is wholly unintended.

There are a couple of possibilities here. One is that the distributor was trying to avoid inducement liability under the Supreme Court’s decision in MGM v. Grokster. Could a funny song about filesharing actually meet the inducement standard? I sure hope not.

The other possibility is that the distributor just found the references too abhorrent to leave in — basically the equivalent of the seven dirty words banned from broadcast TV and radio.

Either way, if Weird Al were dead, I’m sure he’d be spinning in his grave. We’re lucky he’s still kicking.

(“case” is kind of a misnomer for the title here, but is included for consistency).


  1. James Grimmelmann Jan 28

    A particular excess of caution about defaming any entities that could possibly sue?

  2. textshell Jan 28

    A stupid(?) question: Isn’t beeping over words in some artistic work some kind of derivate work which needs authorisation in the classical “all rights reserved” copyright world?
    Could an musican sue if someone does this without consent of the right holder? Or is destroying the music some kind of fair use?

  3. Adam Rosi-Kessel Jan 28

    James: I suppose so, although if that were the standard, I think we would see a lot more censored Weird Al (and other musician) videos. On the defamation scale, this one ranks pretty low, and I don’t see the filesharing services as being particularly litigious on this point, especially since most of them have been put out of business anyway.

    textshell: Not a stupid question — a good one. Although I haven’t researched the issue, I would think that these sorts of modifications would be actionable. See, e.g., the ClearPlay litigation. My guess is that artists are required to sign away rights to contest this sort of censorship with their record label or with the broadcast/media companies that ultimately do the beeping out.

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