Everyone’s Behaving Badly in the GoldieBlox vs. Beastie Boys Dispute

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We can all agree that the optics are’t good in the nascent case of GoldieBlox v. the Beastie Boys. For those of you who missed it, in the last week or so a video promoting GoldieBlox, a line of engineering toys for girls, went viral. It starred three adorable little girls who had built a contraption that ran through their house called the Princess Machine. The message was great, from a societal perspective: girls are doing cool things in the world beyond playing with princesses and dolls. To underline that point, this toy “trailer” plays a modified version of the Beastie Boys’ “Girls” in the background.

“Girls,” as Beastie Boys enthusiasts know, comes from an era in their music where they were better known for crushing PBRs and being bros who rapped. Sample lyrics, from the original:

Girls to do the dishes Girls to clean up my room Girls to do the laundry Girls and in the bathroom.

This verse turns up much revised in the Goldieblox version:

Girls build a spaceship Girls code the new app Girls that grow up knowing That they can engineer that.

As though that wasn’t enough to inspire “+1″s and “THIS!!” comments the Internet over, it turns out the voice singing the revised “Girls” song in the video is none other than Raven, one of the adorable trio that stars in it.

Enter the forces of evil. That cute child’s efforts are now the subject of litigation between the band and the toy company. In brief: GoldieBlox sued the Beastie Boys first, seeking a declaratory injunction that would exempt the “Girls” parody from ordinary copyright protection under the fair use clause. They did this because the Beastie Boys’ lawyer had sent them a nasty letter.

GoldieBlox’s side of the argument is pretty simple: the new “Girls” is a parody. As such, it’s not subject to copyright laws. And so, they shouldn’t have to get a license from the Beastie Boys to do it. There are good reasons to exempt parodies from the ambit of their target’s copyright protection. Otherwise, every time I wanted to mock, say, the terrible lyrics of an Arcade Fire song, I might have to go to them and get their approval. You can see how that would be awkward. Moreover, it would stifle cultural debate.

More broadly, GoldieBlox’s position fits with the general ethos of the Internet these days. Enthusiasts of “free culture” have taken the very good argument about promoting cultural debate that comes out of First Amendment jurisprudence and enlarged it to the point where every time an artist goes to the courts to enforce his or her copyright, everyone freaks out about how it’s such a terrible thing. Right now, the Beastie Boys are getting pummeled for this dispute all over the Internet, even though they didn’t take this argument to the courts, GoldieBlox did.

The Internet, shockingly, has not been totally reasonable in assessing the situation. It’s not always a terrible thing, per se, to want to have some measure of control over how the work is used.

The Beastie Boys, taking them at their word, seem less bothered by the idea that someone’s making fun of them than by having their music used to sell things. This is a noble principle, and I agree with it in the main. There’s nothing more depressing than seeing your favorite, soul-searing song, the one you sang at the top of your teenage lungs all those times you were mad at your parents, deployed to sell Gwyneth Paltrow’s new line of recyclable hoodies.

I do think that the Beastie Boys could be a bit better at recognizing that they are not dealing with your run-of-the-mill capitalist soul-destroyers here. In an open letter they released today, they note that, “As creative as it is, make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.” So, they are prepared to grant that the parody is “creative” — they’re just worried about their music getting commercialized. Which isn’t much of a risk here, given that something like a year ago this company was but a twinkle in the eye over at Kickstarter, and it is probably now getting levels of publicity it could not otherwise have dreamed of by publicly arguing with the Beastie Boys. And most importantly: this isn’t a company that’s selling Gwyneth Paltrow-branded recyclable hoodies. It’s selling toys for girls!

All of this argument is a damned shame, because one can easily envision a scenario in which GoldieBlox (a) contacted the Beastie Boys and (b) the Beastie Boys, seeing the creativity of the thing and recognizing that it was in service of a cause greater than Gwyneth Paltrow’s total saturation of the luxury market, could have said “Hey! Yes! This is a project we are okay with supporting and never mind Adam Yauch’s will, we’re going to call this a ‘public service announcement’ and all sleep OK at night.” Instead now they’re going to get drawn into a fair use case where no doubt everyone will emerge with some egg on their faces. Hopefully Raven can sneak in and snag a recording contract in the meantime.