With a recent law amendment that essentially allows copyright to be infringed in the name of fun, James Marchington wonders who will be next to fall foul of a parody
The appearance on 1 October of a new animal rights campaign website marked a significant change in the UK’s much misunderstood laws of copyright. The site was created by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Set up to campaign against foie gras, it lampoons the style of the high-end London store Fortnum & Mason, which offers the product in its food hall.
Nobody would mistake the parody for the real F&M website, but it uses branding and logos similar to those of the luxury retailer – including a crest with two cranes which, in the PETA version, are spattered with blood. The company’s name is changed to Force-fed & Murdered, the alleged fate of the geese that provide the foie gras it sells.
The parody website and images were shared widely on social networking sites, quickly reaching large numbers of people and potentially causing real harm to the company’s image. PETA is no stranger to parody. It has long been ridiculed as ‘People Eating Tasty Animals’ on T-shirts, posters, Facebook groups and even barbecue sauce bottles. But the animal rights charity has a history of using the technique in some slick marketing campaigns of its own. In the USA the group created a website at www.kentuckyfriedcruelty.com which shows the familiar figure of Col. Sanders sporting a pair of devil horns and holding a blood-spattered chicken by its legs. The website’s text and graphics mimic those of the chicken restaurant chain.
Another of PETA’s creations is www.bloodyburberry.com, this one mimicking the corporate image of the Burberry clothing brand, and campaigning against its use of fur. The website includes mock fashion images in stylish black-and-white, with the bodies of skinned dead animals artfully draped in the pictures for maximum shock effect.
Do such campaigns work? They certainly appeal to the converted. Animal rights supporters are cock-a-hoop (if that doesn’t sound too much like a cruel sport) about the latest attack on Fortnum’s. The campaign has also gained publicity far beyond what could have been achieved with a simple ‘don’t buy foie gras’ message.
The tactic may not win anyone new round to PETA’s case, but it’s bound to annoy companies like Burberry’s and Fortnum’s, who spend considerable sums over many years building and protecting the value of their brand, only to have their own strength used against them in a version of the classic Chinese war stratagem ‘Kill with a borrowed sword’.
Burberry, for instance, was ranked as the world’s 99th most valuable brand by Forbes magazine at the end of 2013, with a brand value estimated at $5.5 billion. The company could afford the finest intellectual property lawyers around, yet it seems powerless to defend its corporate image, at least in the USA, against a smear campaign run by a bunch of activists with extreme views.
Britain was a different matter. Here we have long had strong legal protection for copyright, ensuring that artists, photographers and writers, as well as companies, benefit from their creative endeavours. Copying the ‘look and feel’ of a brand, never mind its actual artwork, would land you in hot water – with a few exceptions designed, for instance, to allow newspapers to quote someone else’s words to produce a review or news story.
From 1 October, in an attempt to bring our copyright law into the digital age (some might say shut the stable door after the horse has crossed into the next county), the government has added a couple of exceptions for the use of copyrighted material to the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1998. Copyrighted material can now be used without permission for the purposes of parody, caricature or pastiche. This government hopes this will stimulate creativity and boost our comedy industry as well as allowing protesters to use parody as a means of attacking their targets.
So you can’t, for instance, knock off your competitor’s website and nick all his photos. But if you were in a playful mood you could legitimately make a humorous parody using significant amounts of his stuff.
I can see this opening the floodgates to all sorts of mischief. Consider some of the high profile brands in the shooting trade. A competitor with time on his hands and an overdeveloped sense of fun could have a field day making parody videos, images and websites. With our customers increasingly using Facebook, Twitter and the rest, these could quickly spread and cause significant damage to the brand’s image. There may be other ways to seek legal redress, but copyright is no longer one of them if the perpetrator can claim it was just a joke. Still, on the positive side perhaps we can look forward to hilarious parodies of irritating anti-shooting organisations like Animal Aid and the RSPB.
Looking at the wider picture, there has been very little media debate recently about gun ownership. At the end of August there was the sorry tale of a US shooting instructor accidentally killed by his pupil, a nine-year-old girl, firing a 9mm submachine gun on full auto. This prompted the BBC and others to ask, ‘Could it happen here?’ wheeling out statistics on the number of British youngsters granted shotgun certificates.
The answer, eloquently put on BBC Breakfast by shooting instructor Peter Wroe, was a firm no. The journalists accepted that response, and the news agenda moved on. We will always need to be ready to stand up and defend our sport, but for now at least it seems that the media and the public accept that Britain’s gun laws are tough enough.
The same cannot be said about animal rights and welfare; the most ridiculous claims by animal rights campaigners are given prominent coverage by the mainstream media. One recent example was at a West Country food festival that included a competition for the best squirrel burger. The nutters at Voice for Animals wailed about a ‘smear campaign against grey squirrels’ and even the RSPCA expressed its concern about how the squirrels might have been killed.
With continued Isis tension and Ebola threatening life as we know it, it was hardly a slow news day; yet the whole nonsense was reported in papers including the Western Daily Press and Daily Mail. Perhaps the RSPB have got it right after all with their childish election campaign led by a squirrel named Bob who wants to “get nature on our politicians’ agenda”. He pleads, “I want my young – and yours – to inherit a world where they can thrive.” Better start shooting those greys then