In anticipation of tonight’s debate, I’d like to discuss, from a non-partisan IP law perspective, something that came out of the first Presidential debate: the Big Bird ad. I think the ad and the Sesame Street folks’ response raised some interesting questions of fair use, parody and first amendment rights that are applicable to composers and performers.
As we know, it started with a comment that Republican contender, Gov. Mitt Romney, made to the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS , about cutting federal funding for PBS programs, including Lehrer’s own NewsHour and Sesame Street. Mr. Romney specifically singled out Big Bird for the budget ax. Thereafter, Big Bird, who claims he’s normally in bed well before 11:30 p.m., made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update to address the issue. Being non-partisan, however, Mr. Bird declined to make any political pronouncements, stating, “No, I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”
Unfortunately, he managed to do so, courtesy of a TV ad from President Obama’s campaign. Prominently featuring Big Bird and the familiar green Sesame Street sign, the ad has a satiric quality to it that one doesn’t typically see in Presidential campaign ads. It seemed, at least to me, more like one of the fake ads produced by Saturday Night Live. But it’s real and Sesame Workshop, the company that owns the rights to Sesame Street and its many characters, made it known that they are not amused.
Sesame Workshop’s demand that the Obama campaign cease using the Big Bird ad has been widely publicized. But you might well ask, “doesn’t the President’s campaign have a First Amendment right to use Big Bird?” After all, “political speech” is the very core of our right to free speech. And wouldn’t the use of Big Bird constitute “fair use” under copyright law? Wouldn’t it be considered a protected “parody”? Read the rest of this entry »