Although it can be a legal grey area (with multiple shades of grey), for the most part it’s actually perfectly legal to parody an artistic work under “fair use” laws. This is because of two landmark court cases that clarified the once murky situation for parody writers.
These days you don’t need to get permission from the original artist but you do need to acknowledge that it is a parody and that you’re not pretending to be the originator of the work.
The law regarding printed parody lyrics was fought and won by Mad Magazine. In its early days the magazine had a regular parody section featuring humorous lyrics to well-known songs by the likes of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter inviting the reader to “Sing to the tune of…”
But Irving Berlin hated having his songs messed with (he famously despised Elvis Presley’s version of White Christmas so much he tried, in vain, to get it banned from the radio.) Berlin and a group of songwriters sued Mad Magazine for using their work, and lost. Then they appealed, and lost again. And then appealed to the Supreme Court where the judge refused to hear the case making it a win for Mad who happily continued with their parodies.
But that only covered parodies in print. The law regarding parody recordings was only changed decades later.
Parody recording artist Weird Al Yankovic states on his website:
Al does get permission from the original writers of the songs that he parodies. While the law supports his ability to parody without permission, he feels it’s important to maintain the relationships that he’s built with artists and writers over the years. Plus, Al wants to make sure that he gets his songwriter credit (as writer of new lyrics) as well as his rightful share of the royalties.
The law that Weird Al is referring to is a relatively recent one originating in 1989, (which was already well into Al’s parody career.) It used to be that you could parody part of a song but not the bulk of it. This got changed when rap group: 2 Live Crew were sued for using the whole chorus from Roy Orbison’s song Pretty Woman with altered lyrics. The Supreme Court ruled in their favour and the doors for parody have been largely open ever since.
But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that the original songwriters have to like it. And Irving Berlin is not the only songwriter to have gotten miffed from having their work ridiculed. Sam Coslow hated Spike Jones’ irreverent, and anarchic recording of his song Cocktails for Two. Hitherto it was a sweet, romantic song but, once Spike Jones had grabbed it and mauled it into submission, it was never the same again. Coslow hated the parody despite, as the original songwriter, making a lot of money from the song royalties.
Most songsters though, are happy to have their work spoofed. Not only does it promote their music (while accruing royalties) it also gives their act a certain cachet. There’s definitely a cool factor in knowing you are famous enough to be parodied. The idea that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery can even be taken to an extreme, as when Dire Straits willingly contributed their musicianship to Al Yankovic’s parody version of their own song Money for Nothing and imitated themselves!
And sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Like the time Paul McCartney saw Weird Al Yankovic in an airport lounge and told him, “If you ever want to do one of my songs, it’s yours.” A couple of years later Weird Al had written and recorded a fully produced parody of the James Bond song Live and Let Die by McCartney’s band Wings. The parody was called Chicken Pot Pie.
As a final courtesy Yankovic called McCartney to get his blessing only to learn that Macca, as a devout vegetarian, wouldn’t endorse the parody because he didn’t want to encourage meat eating. In light of this lack of approval Al Yankovic would still have been perfectly within his rights to release the song, but, respectful of McCartney’s views, he voluntarily shelved it, only resurrecting it now and then for live performances.
Is there a middle way? What if you are capable of writing original songs but you also like to work within a familiar style? Well, I have good news for you, why not try Pastiche.
The word pastiche originates from the visual arts world and its use in a musical context usually means to imitate stylistic elements of other people’s songs but without the intent to ridicule. For songwriters this means that you can use the exact same chord changes and musical feel as a well-known song in order to create an instantly familiar connection for the audience. But, so long as you have unique enough melody and lyrics, it will also be a completely independent and unique piece of work.
Although I’ve written plenty of parodies in my time, my personal preference is for pastiche. In my current musical comedy double act: McShane and Shaw both Chris McShane and myself are pretty strong songwriters. We definitely enjoy creating the melody as much as we do the lyrics. Because of this, parody feels to us somewhat unsatisfying. Therefore, we borrow from various musical styles to write and perform original comedy songs and instrumental pieces that we can call our own. And I look forward to telling you more about our work in the coming weeks.
For now, I’ll say farewell until next time, when we take a look at some tips for writing a great parody.
Keep Strumming and Smiling