Why Power/Rangers matters to readers
I like parodies.
I even have a category for parodies I write on this blog.
I’ve done Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes (I think that may have come out the best), Star Trek, Leave it to Beaver, and more.
There is a significant difference between the first two above and the last two.
The first two are public domain works (well, most of the original Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes, for sure…that’s a bit complicated), and the latter two are still under copyright protection in the USA.
The United States Copyright Office specifically lists a parody as something which has been found to fall under “Fair Use”, meaning that authorization from the rightsholder need not be obtained.
Essentially, Fair Use is recognized as a kind of criticism…you point out the flaws in something by exaggeration, commonly.
That’s not protected in all countries.
In the past, I think one reason we saw a lot of Canadian comedians working in the USA was a difference in parody protection.
Recently, a “grim” version of the Power Rangers was made in what is commonly called a “fan film”…a parallel to “fan fiction” (often shortened to “fanfic”).
It criticized the idea of teenagers being chosen as warriors…and what might happen to them afterwards.
I watched it on YouTube.
Our now adult kid was into Power Rangers (the version being parodied here…the first popular US incarnation, not any of the myriad Japanese ones), so I was pretty familiar with the canon.
I thought it was well done.
Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) and James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek) star.
Now, it’s important to note, that this is not a funny version…a parody need not be funny to be protected, or to be a parody. It needs to be, as I understand it, an imitation which would not be confused with the original, but comments on it (typically through some sort of warping of the original).
Fan films and fanfic are often characterized by people as not being for commercial purposes. It is possible to have protection even for something done for commercial purposes…look, for example, at parodies on Saturday Night Live or Mad Magazine, both of which are commercial enterprises.
So, why does all of this matter for readers?
First, Vimeo took the video down…then quite a bit later, YouTube did (despite it being in their most popular videos for days, which is quite a feat).
Producer Adi Shankar said in part that having the video was protected by “free speech”, and parody.
That’s something I hear from time to time…that when Amazon chooses not to carry a book, it’s a violation of free speech.
It’s not part of the constitutional of free speech.
Legal “free speech” has to do with what the government does, not what private companies do.
It means that the government can’t shut down your parody, based on current case law, as I understand it (I’m not a lawyer). A private company can decide not to carry something…pretty much for whatever reason they want.
As I looked into this more, it looks like YouTube may have taken it down because of the use of the music, which is not the original version.
That’s different…it’s quite a bit harder to argue that the use of a melody is a parody of that melody.
Weird Al Yankovic gets the rights to the music, from what I know (although, and I don’t know this, that might not have always been the case).
Vimeo and YouTube have no legal obligation to keep any video available.
My interpretation would be that Power/Rangers was legal…but there are tons of legal videos that YouTube doesn’t carry.
Moving this to books…
You can write a parody of something.
You can publish that parody.
Nobody has to sell it to the public for you or distribute it to the public for you.
You can write fan fiction.
If it criticizes a work, you can distribute it…the government is not going to arrest you for it.
That doesn’t mean a bookstore (brick and mortar, like I used to manage, or internet, like Amazon) has to make it available.
I found this Huffington Post interview with producer Adi Shankar important and interesting (and, incidentally, NSFW…Not Safe For Work, having profanity):
One thing Shankar says:
“I moved to America when I was 16 because this country was f*cking awesome, because of the First Amendment, because of freedom of speech…”
However, we do have to be clear about what that means.
We can’t claim that free speech forces a commercial enterprise to sell something or give it away…the First Amendment constricts the government, not companies.
I’ve also seen this referred to as a “bootleg” (it’s in the page name at the HuffPo).
It’s not that, either.
A bootleg is an unauthorized recording done in a covert manner…someone records a movie in a movie theatre, for example, and then distributes that version.
Bootleg used to refer to hiding illegal liquor in your bootleg, as I recall it.
There was nothing in this fan film (according to the producer) that was original material, so nothing was bootlegged.
The term “cover” has also come up.
In a “cover”, one band/singer plays the music of another band/singer.
I haven’t completely verified this, but I always understood that those were done because the original musicians were a minority who were subject to commercial discrimination (stores wouldn’t carry records by certain races, for example…or perhaps, if they did, they would put them in what was literally called a “race music” section, where they wouldn’t sell to the mainstream). You need an “acceptable” face to put on the cover of the album…so someone else would record what was often a pretty faithful version of the original.
That also extended to radio stations not playing music.
“Covers” have later lost that sense of “covering up” the original artist.
Power/Rangers is also not a cover. In the original use of “covers”, the original songs were licensed…even though those contracts might arguably have been exploitative, they still existed. They were done with some sort of legally defensible authorization.
Power/Rangers does not duplicate a Power Rangers episode shot for shot, which a cover would do (or would nearly do).
It’s a brand new story line.
It is a parody.
I understand YouTube taking down the video, and I believe they have a legal right to do so.
The chilling effect does concern me a bit, though. Some companies (studios, publishers) and some authors go after parodies, and can influence distributors into not carrying them, and artists into not creating them.
I want people to feel free to criticize politicians and popular culture works through the use of parody…free, at least, from legal prosecution.
I don’t mind if they have to fight for distribution…just as creators of non-parodies do.
Interestingly, Adi Shankar is not “just a fan”. Shankar is a legitimate commercial producer, including such projects as Lone Survivor with Mark Wahlberg, Dredd with Karl Urban, and The Grey with Liam Neeson.
Shankar could fight this, and might have the power to do so.
I don’t see a path where the Supreme Court would rule that a store/distribution platform would have to carry a specific parody.
I can see something that might make companies less willing to go after fanfic and fan films, if this becomes a headache and a public relations black eye.
That’s probably unlikely, though.
All of this could strengthen Amazon’s own
Kindle Worlds (at AmazonSmile: support a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)
The works there are authorized by the rightsholders.
No author will get a cease and desist from a publisher because of a Kindle Worlds title.
Yes, the rightsholders get to set up rules for the world if they want, and if a work doesn’t fit it, well, you’d have to go a different route.
Still, there’s a lot in the Power/Rangers story that could impact us readers.
What do you think?
What’s your favorite literary parody (at AmazonSmile*)? Bored of the Rings, perhaps? What should Amazon do if a rightsholder challenges a book on copyright grounds? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.
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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. Shop ’til you help!
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.