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Web site spoofs proliferating

Some claim they trample on copyrights
The Wall Street Journal
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 02.14.2006
Is it real … or a parody? On the Web, it's often hard to tell.
Using a few simple hardware and software tools, people are creating increasingly sophisticated spoofs and posting them on the Web — from videos that send up TV shows to mock-up sites pretending to be official corporate or government Web pages.
But as these parodies proliferate, they're facing some serious trouble. Some artists have taken legal action against spoofers, claiming they trample on copyrights. Corporations have tried to shut down sites that resemble their official Web pages. Some sites that post parodies are even battling each other over allegedly stolen material.
"The whole copyright issue is very touchy, especially on the Internet," says Max Goldberg of, which posts thousands of parodies available to download. "In the real world, people don't steal things and just not think about it. It's much more of an afterthought on the Internet."
The number of spoof sites has exploded as more content — from celebrity photos to music and movie clips — becomes available online. It's easy to use common programs such as PhotoShop and QuickTime to grab images, videos and sounds and create animations or other pastiches. Some people go a step further and use specialized programs.
Some parodies have attracted national attention. During the 2004 presidential campaign, JibJab Media Inc., a team of two brothers in Santa Monica, Calif., created an animation of George W. Bush and John Kerry singing to the tune of "This Land Is Your Land." JibJab says the parody and its sequel were seen more than 80 million times during the 2004 election season.
But with increased popularity has come legal scrutiny. In July 2004, Ludlow Music Inc. threatened to sue JibJab over its use of "This Land." The conflict was resolved when JibJab's legal team discovered Ludlow's copyright on the song had lapsed.
Few if any parody fights have made their way to the courts. In most cases, sites challenged by copyright holders remove material rather than risk a legal battle.
It's tough to tell how such cases would fare in court. Copyright law doesn't address Internet parodies, so they fall under "fair use" doctrine. Federal courts have wide latitude in determining what constitutes fair use. The parameters: the nature of the work, the amount of original material used and how it's used, and whether the new work will have an impact on the market value of the original.
"All the cards are stacked against the little guy," says Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that defends online free speech and privacy rights. "Filing a lawsuit isn't that expensive — at least not to a big corporation. But if you're an artist or consumer, who can afford such a thing?"
Sometimes, though, the targets of parody prefer not to fight. They may not want to draw more attention to the parody site by suing. And the public might sympathize with the little guy if a corporation, politician or celebrity tries to quash a spoof.
In one recent case, the Yes Men, a group of anti-corporate activists, created a Web site,, that imitated Dow Chemical Co.'s site and called attention to Dow actions and operations the Yes Men found objectionable.
In 2004, BBC World TV mistook the site for the genuine article and sent an invitation through the site for a Dow Chemical representative to speak on television. The phony spokesman said Dow Chemical would take responsibility for a disaster in Bhopal, India, in 1984 at a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide. Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide in 2001.
People may find such tactics amusing, but they are attempts to deceive the public and the media, a Dow Chemical spokeswoman said. Dow took no legal action.
The Yes Men, which created software that lets anybody parody official Web pages, says it isn't afraid of lawsuits. "That would be the best thing that could happen to us," says Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum. "It would mean a lot of publicity."
Even with threats and legal action, it's difficult to remove a spoof from the Internet. "When you put something on the Internet, its distribution isn't limited by some cigar-chomping mogul," says Dan Harmon, co-creator of If people like it, he says, it "goes viral" — people distribute it over the Web.
"It can't be undone, it can't be erased," he says.