Magazine article Reason

How South Park Saved Fair Use: "What, What (in the Butt)" Helped Establish an Important Free Speech Precedent

Magazine article Reason

How South Park Saved Fair Use: "What, What (in the Butt)" Helped Establish an Important Free Speech Precedent

Article excerpt

"I HOPE THAT LAW students today are having to watch Butters sing 'What, What (In the Butt)' in their classrooms. I hope that's the legacy in this case," says Parker Higgins, director of copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

For 19 seasons, South Park has provided cutting cultural commentary centered around the foul-mouthed adventures of elementary school students Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman. But the raunchy cartoon has also helped establish an important legal entertainment precedent that expands free speech rights.

"When anybody creates anything, basically, that thing automatically gets copyrighted and for the most part it can't be used in certain ways without permission," explains Higgins. "But there are some really important exceptions to that rule, and there are some really important places where we say, 'Actually, members of the public, no matter who they are, can use this thing for all sorts of reasons without getting permission.'"

In 2010, EFF became unlikely allies with the media giant Viacom--the owner of Comedy Central--which had been sued by Brownmark Films after a 2008 South Park episode called "Canada on Strike" parodied a popular viral video by the musician Samwell.

The South Park version of the video, starring a recurring character named Butters, mimics the original video nearly shot-for-shot. The stunningly unsubtle lyrics are slightly abbreviated but otherwise unchanged. The kids post their rendition to "YouToob" and watch as it grabs millions of hits. Brownmark was not amused.

EFF and Viacom argued that the South Park episode was a clear case of fair use, as it was a parody commenting on the viral video trend. The criteria under which a fair use determination is made include whether or not the work transforms the original work, the nature of the original work, how much of the original work is used, and whether it affects the market for the original work. …

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