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I am struggling with the difference between these definitions.

Q: Is this a Parody or a Copyright Infringement?

In a proposed pilot for a TV/Web show aimed at children for edutainment, one of the characters sings a parody of a popular song. It will not be the full length of the original song, just a musical intro and 1 verse.

If this goes forward, there are plans for song parodies in the episodes. Can the writer be sued successfully for doing this?

Does it matter if the production company is a non-profit?

So, my question: Is this a parody, covered under Fair Use, or does the show need to pay a licensing fee?

Since the song itself will be used in a video production, would this require a sync license?

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The question as worded implies that if something is a parody it is automatically fair use or allowed in US copyright law. This is a myth.

First of all, in a copyright context, the term "parody" is somewhat limited. In that sense, a "parody" is a new work which comments on the original (often but not always by mocking or ridiculing the original). A mere alternate version which modifies the form of the original, perhaps humorously, but not to comment on the original or perhaps on much of anything, is not a parody. A new work which modifies the original to comment on something else, but not on the original, is a satire. Of course many works may be both parodies and satires in this sense.

See this law.se Q&A for extensive quotes from Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin Co 268 F.3d 1257 (The case of The Wind Done Gone vs Gone with the Wind) and discussion of what is and is not a parody in US copyright law, and when a parody is fair use.

A parody, because it comments on the original, will often be found to be a fair use of the original. But not always. The full four-factor analysis must still be done, and the results are never certain until a court has passed on the specific case. See this law.se Q&A for more on fair use.

I can't tell from the question whether the modified song is truly a parody in the sense used in copyright law. If not, it probably isn't fair use, although it might be for other reasons.

By the way, a song written for a television show or video to be distributed commercially is a commercial use, even if a non-profit corporation is involved, and even if there is an educational purpose.

Note that fair-use is a strictly US legal concept. Even if something is fair use under US law, it may be copyright infringement under the laws of some other country.

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  • Thank you, @David. Very informative. I am doing Satire, not Parody.
    – Scottie H
    May 12, 2019 at 22:21
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    @ScottieH, David Siegel: I would point out that parody has a meaning in musicology that is related but rather different. It would be a mistake to use this meaning in the context of copyright law.
    – phoog
    Jul 6, 2020 at 19:30
  • @phoog: Thanks for pointing that out!
    – Scottie H
    Jul 8, 2020 at 0:51
  • You should also know that it is not because something is commercially successful that it isn't protected under fair use as long as it's a parody. Not at all. There is in fact a five part standard used by some courts to determine whether a song is a parody or not, and whether the original artist's work will suffer as a result, which if old, for example, is unlikely. You can see the famous case of Pretty Woman, which was a landmark case that went through said process (Pretty Woman lost). As long as you can show that you're making fun of the original (both in melody and lyrics), you'll be fine. Oct 31, 2021 at 11:51
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    However, if the artist's work is recent, and if your parody or the work in which it appears is successful, the original artist will likely sue you for damages. Also, since you'll be making fun of the original work, nearly no artist will give you permission. That's okay though, you really only need to show the courts that you attempted to get permission and they refused to give it to you. Look at Weird Al's work and you'll see that he's parodied the the biggest, most successful songs in the business. I don't think even one artist gave him permission, and anyone who took him to court lost. :) Oct 31, 2021 at 11:56

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