Pretty Parody: Rap Case Aids Comedians, Satirists

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Comedians Mark Russell and the Capitol Steps beat singers Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton.

Mad Magazine and the Harvard Lampoon won over Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin.

Home Box Office, Comedy Central and the NBC television network were also victors.

No, the forum was not a Hollywood Bowl gala for a new combined Grammys/Emmys/National Magazine Awards. It was the considerably less glamorous--but perhaps more important to the entertainment industry--United States Supreme Court.

The court ruled this March in a case titled Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, Inc., which might be thought of as Roy Orbison v. 2 Live Crew. The owners of the rights to Orbison's classic '60s song "Oh, Pretty Woman!" sued the '90s rap group 2 Live Crew over that group's parody piece, "Pretty Woman."

And, yes, the issue was so central to many entertainers that it actually set comedians against songwriters, and satirical magazines against legendary composers. All of the persons and groups listed above, and others (including some usual suspects such as the ACLU and a ubiquitous group of "concerned law professors"), weighed in with advice submitted in friend-of-the-court briefs.

The court's decision, in essence, adopted the position urged by the comedians and satirists. It is a landmark decision that recognizes the social and literary value to parody, and frees creative persons from some of the legal straightjackets imposed by other recent copyright decisions.

The ruling is important not only to those who specialize in parody but also to all writers, artists and communications professionals--both commercial and non-commercial--who at times utilize references to or parodies of existing copyrighted works.

The case was about two very different pretty women.

Orbison's song glamorized an idealized "pretty woman." The singer first idolizes the woman:

"Pretty Woman, I couldn't help but see, / Pretty Woman, that you look lovely as can be / . . . Pretty Woman, say you'll stay with me."

Then he is disappointed when she rebuffs him:

"Pretty Woman, don't walk on by, / Pretty Woman, don't make me cry."

And finally he cheers when she appears to change her mind:

"Is she walking back to me? / Yeah, she's walking back to me!"

2 Live Crew's version uses some or Orbison's music and key words, but the overall story concerns, to say the least, a different "pretty woman." The group begins by using lines and accompanying music from Orbison's song:

"Pretty woman walkin' down the street / Pretty woman girl you look so sweet."

But the picture soon changes:

"Big hairy woman you need to shave that stuff / . . . Big hairy woman all that hair ain't legit / 'Cause you look like 'Cousin It'."

The following choruses depict a "bald-headed woman" and a "two-timin' woman." And the song concludes not with delight in the woman's turning to the singer, but a different feeling about the woman who is revealed to be pregnant:

"Two timin' woman you's out with my boy last night / Two timin' woman that takes a load off my mind / Two timin' woman now I know the baby ain't mine. / Oh, two timin' woman / Oh pretty woman."

At first blush the subject matter of this case might seem ill-suited for nine conservative middle-aged and elderly jurists, and least of all its reclusive bachelor member from New Hampshire, Justice David Souter.

But in a unanimous opinion, written by Justice Souter, the Court took 2 Live Crew's parody song quite seriously, and ultimately concluded it could qualify as "fair use" of Orbison's copyrighted song and hence not a copyright infringement. …