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Report Rundown
• Special Report Main Page
• The Dangers Within
• Anatomy of a Threat
• Information Security
• The New Paper Trail
• Wireless Warrior
• Changing History
• The Problem With Parody
• Blog Watch
• Tuning In What's New in Radio
• Editor's Note
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The Problem With Parody

Spoof sites are popping up all over the Internet. But with the lawyers not far behind, who will get the last laugh?
February 13, 2006; Page R7

Is it real...or is it 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.

[See the full report]
See the complete Technology report.

"The whole copyright issue is very touchy, especially on the Internet," says Max Goldberg, operator of, a site that posts thousands of parodies that are 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."

New Material

Spoof sites have been around for a long time. But their numbers have 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 software programs for the task.

In some cases, 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 Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." JibJab says the parody and its sequel were seen over 80 million times online during the 2004 election season.

[THE KINGS OF COMEDY's 'This Land Is Your Land' animation drew lots of visitors during the 2004 presidential campaign]
THE KINGS OF COMEDY's 'This Land Is Your Land' animation drew lots of visitors during the 2004 presidential campaign

But with the increased popularity has come legal scrutiny. In July 2004, for instance, Ludlow Music Inc. threatened to sue JibJab over its use of "This Land." Ludlow, a division of New York-based music publisher Richmond Organization Inc., claimed to hold the copyright to the song. The conflict was resolved when JibJab's legal team discovered that the copyright had lapsed.

Even less-publicized parodies draw fire. Early last year, Justin Roiland, a cable-TV producer in Sherman Oaks, Calif., led a team that created "House of Cosbys," an animated send-up of Bill Cosby and his comedic persona. Four episodes were posted on, a Los Angeles-based site that hosts users' videos, including lots of TV-show parodies. "It was just a labor of love," Mr. Roiland says.

When Mr. Roiland had finished the script for the fifth episode, he says he received a cease-and-desist letter from Bill Cosby's lawyers. "I was partly sad...and kind of a little flattered" that Mr. Cosby might have seen the animation, he says. "I'm sure he despised it, which is sort of sad because we're all fans."

Mr. Roiland and his friends halted production of new episodes, but left the old ones online. He says Mr. Cosby's lawyers then sent cease-and-desist letters to the companies that hosted and Mr. Roiland's own site, The hosting companies informed Mr. Roiland and that their sites would be shut down unless they provided proof that they weren't infringing on Mr. Cosby's rights -- or unless they removed the shows from their sites. Mr. Roiland and the operators of say they took down the episodes, not wanting to risk the battle.

"All we're doing is following the law as written," says Hollis Godfrey, general counsel of CI Host, of Bedford, Texas,'s Internet-hosting company.

A lawyer for Mr. Cosby declined to comment on the Channel101 matter.'s Internet-hosting company didn't return requests for comment.

John Wooden, a Web-site publisher in Brooklyn, N.Y., says he hasn't received many cease-and-desist letters even though he's been posting parody sites for a number of years. Most recently, Mr. Wooden says he received a letter in January 2005 from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which he had jokingly listed as a corporate sponsor on one of his sites. According to Mr. Wooden, Wal-Mart said the use of its trademark caused confusion, and asked that it be taken down. Mr. Wooden replaced the Wal-Mart logo with a similarly styled logo for "Mao-Mart."

A Wal-Mart spokesman confirmed that the retailer asked Mr. Wooden to remove the logo, but declined to comment further.

Few if any of these parody fights have made their way to the courts. In most cases, sites that are challenged by copyright holders remove the material voluntarily rather than risk a legal battle.

It's difficult to tell how such cases would fare in a courtroom. Copyright law doesn't specifically address Internet parodies, so they would fall under "fair use" doctrine, which covers newly developed technologies and situations. And federal courts have wide latitude in determining what constitutes fair use. The main 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 the site in question. The target, for instance, may not want to draw even more attention to the parody site by suing. In addition, the public could easily sympathize with the little guy if a big corporation, government official or celebrity tries to quash a spoof.

In a recent notorious case, the Yes Men, a group of anticorporate activists, created a Web site,, that imitated Dow Chemical Co.'s site ( The mock-up called attention to actions and operations by Dow Chemical that the Yes Men found objectionable.

In late 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 that occurred in Bhopal, India, in 1984 at a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide. Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide in 2001.

"While some may find the tactics of these individuals amusing, their actions are attempts to deceive the public and the media," says a Dow Chemical spokeswoman. "They demonstrate a lack of understanding of our company, our products and technology."

Yet Dow Chemical didn't take any legal action against "We believe most astute visitors...will readily realize it's a bogus Web site," the spokeswoman says.

The Yes Men, which created software that lets anybody parody official Web pages, says that its users have received some copyright and fair-use complaints. But the group says it isn't afraid of the possibility of lawsuits. "That would be the best thing that could happen to us," says Andy Bichlbaum, one of the Yes Men. "It would mean a lot of publicity."

Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

Parodies can come back to bite the spoofers, as well. A year after its scrape with Ludlow Music, JibJab sent a cease-and-desist letter to, a site that used a few snippets of JibJab's "This Land" video in its own creation, "George Bush Doesn't Like Black People."

"We had a major backlash from people who thought we were involved" with the Black Lantern video, says JibJab's co-creator, Gregg Spiridellis. "If we let people use our art for partisan purposes, it will kill all the goodwill we've worked very hard to build with our audience over the years."

The Black Lantern, which is registered to a New Brunswick, N.J., address, didn't respond to emails seeking comment, but the site says it has replaced the JibJab content with different material.

Still, even with threats and legal action, it's difficult to remove a popular spoof from the Internet. Dan Harmon, co-creator of, points out that people who downloaded the "House of Cosbys" episodes have posted them elsewhere across the Web. "When you put something on the Internet, its distribution isn't limited by some cigar-chomping mogul," Mr. Harmon says. If people like it, he says, it "goes viral" -- people distribute it themselves over the Web.

"It can't be undone, it can't be erased," he says, adding, "You can't control digital information the way you can control radios, television and movies."

--Ms. Ossinger is a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal in South Brunswick, N.J.

Write to Joanna Ossinger at

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