Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Expelled" uses sample from "Imagine" without permission

The copyright infringment continues--it seems that "Expelled" makes use of about 25 seconds of John Lennon's song "Imagine," but permission was neither sought nor granted for its use:
In a written statement, the film's three producers -- Walt Ruloff, John Sullivan and Logan Craft -- acknowledged that they did not seek permission, but they called the use "momentary." "After seeking the opinion of legal counsel it was seen as a First Amendment issue and protected under the fair use doctrine of free speech," the statement said. A spokeswoman said under 25 seconds of the song are used in the movie.
Now this is actually an instance where I agree with "Expelled"'s producers--this should fall within fair use guidelines. The courts, however, have already ruled otherwise. (UPDATE: Not quite accurate, see correction below.) In 2005, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films that even a 1.5-second sample requires a license. I'd be happy to see a lawsuit on this issue result in that ruling being overturned.

I've previously written about the danger of such erosion of fair use to the creation of new music in one of this blog's more popular posts. The link at the end of that post about "Amen Brother" is well worth your time.

(Also related is this film in which fair-use samples from Disney films are used to make Disney characters explain current U.S. copyright law.)

UPDATE (April 18, 2008): Russell Blackford argues that "Expelled"'s use of "Imagine" is to make comment on the content of the song, and makes a moral case for the legitimacy of its use. I agree with his argument--the use of a sample of the song to make comment on it enhances the case for "fair use," but I think it should have met fair use guidelines even without that.

UPDATE (April 23, 2008): As commenter lquilter points out below, the Bridgeport case did not say quite what I said above--it doesn't eliminate fair use as a defense to a use of small samples, it eliminates the argument that sampling is using so little of the original material that no copyright applies. The result is that a lengthier court proceeding is required to fight for such use.

"Expelled"'s makers are now being sued over the use of "Imagine."
I don't feel bad for them, but I think they should win their case. This probably guarantees that the film will not make a profit from its theatrical run, after deducting legal expenses.

UPDATE (May 1, 2008): The Stanford Law School's Fair Use Project has signed on to defend "Expelled" against the Ono Lennon lawsuit. Good for them, I hope they win this one. It shouldn't be difficult.

UPDATE (May 2, 2008): P.Z. Myers points out distortions in "Expelled"'s press release about the their defense in the "Imagine" lawsuit. Even in the rare case when I agree with them (their fair use defense here), they still have to throw in a distortion or two to show that they are sleazy, I guess. (I disagree with Myers' assertion that there is no commentary on the song; see Russell Blackford's analysis, linked to above.)

Perhaps the strongest argument against "Expelled" in this case is that they sought licenses for other songs they used, but did not even attempt to get permission for "Imagine," as pointed out by Laura Quilter (who has also commented here).

UPDATE (May 5, 2008): The judge in the case has enjoined "Expelled" from any further distribution or DVD release, though they can continue showing the film in the theaters where it's already playing (currently down to 655 theaters).

UPDATE (May 9, 2008): And now down to 402 theaters.

UPDATE (June 2, 2008): The judge has ruled against Yoko Ono's motion for a permanent injunction against "Expelled" on the grounds that the defendants are likely to prevail.


Reed said...

Has anyone verified the sample is in the cut of the film that will be released on the 18th? Or might this be another case of using infringing material as a placeholder in the screenings?

Lippard said...

Reed: I suspect it may be as you say--a placeholder in the screenings (and also used in some of the advertising, I believe)--but then not in the final film.

Laura Quilter said...

Bridgeport got rid of de minimis for music samples, not fair use. The court clarified this in an amended decision.

This was a blow for use, because de minimis is a quick way to get out of court, while fair use is a long, fact-intensive analysis.

Ktisophilos said...

What a joke: suing about intellectual property rights for a song that says, "Imagine no possessions"!

Lippard said...

Hypocrisy doesn't result in estoppel... while I agree with you that there is at least some serious irony here, that doesn't provide a good legal argument for the "Expelled" team.

And note that the lyrics say to *imagine* such a condition, not that it holds in reality. That particular line is one that never will, since even the most ardent communist must admit that there's got to be a role for personal possessions.