The Beauty and the Beast of Copyright Law

If you have taken time to read my ABOUT section, then you know one of my favorite hobbies is watching Saturday Night Live. Some casts are better than others, some skits are more memorable than others and some characters are funnier than others. Regardless of the year, the American history and social norms it seems to always encapsulate and succinctly poke fun at the same time is always entertaining.

This past week, Anna Kendrick was the guest host. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard the first few notes from the opening scene of my favorite Disney movie Beauty and the Beast. Anna performed a parody to “Belle” or better known as the “Bonjour Song.” The parody was about her first time hosting SNL. The opening monologue is being touted as one of the best.

Fast forward later into the show and Anna appears at The Little Mermaid. She has the “Disney look” as far as the fairytale of Ariel goes, complete with a bright red wig, a purple shelled bikini top and turquoise flippers. She is also accompanied by the character Sebastian in a bright red lobster suit, Flounder in a yellow and blue shaped costume and the villain Ursula with all of her octopus legs and purple hue to her skin. The skit includes music from The Little Mermaid movie and even dialogue.

As much as I would like to provide links to show you these two scenes, sadly they cannot be found. In fact, the Hulu version online of SNL is complete but for these two scenes. They are simply removed. In fact, if you go to a YouTube page that supposedly has the opening monologue you will see this:

One of my faithful readers (and also fellow Disney fan!) wanted to know why they could not find it online. Under the doctrine of Fair Use found in the copyright statute, there are certain “favored uses.” Those favored uses include “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research.” For a complete review of the doctrine of Fair Use be sure to visit my other posts titled Fair Use and Disney.

But, Ryanne isn’t using the tune from Beauty and The Beast a parody and allowed under the doctrine of Fair Use? Yes, absolutely parodies are allowed under the doctrine of Fair Use. However, parodies only fall under the idea of Fair Use when they are part of “criticism or comment.” The beauty of copyright law is that we have the doctrine of Fair Use, but the beast is that it must be used in certain ways in order to qualify as truly Fair Use.

In the case of Anna Kendrick, she was not using the song to comment on some social issue or to criticize the original work, but rather the writers of SNL were borrowing the tune of the original to profit from its popularity.   SNL’s version was riding the coattails off of the copyright of the song and going against the main purpose of copyright.  The same can be said for The Little Mermaid skit. Without a doubt The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast  SNL skits added creative expression. It is also arguable the uses by NBC are transformative of the underlying original works. However, the parodies were not meant to criticize or comment.

Therefore, the NBC attorneys more than likely felt it necessary to call across town to the Disney/ABC attorneys and license the content. The absence of it online tells me there were some licensing limitations that Disney/ABC put in place before granting a license to NBC to create the skits. Unfortunately, that means even though the opening monologue is being touted as one of the all-time best that if you are going to see it, you will have to catch a re-run and/or DVR the episode next time it runs because you will not find it online.

You can go to this LINK to view the entirety of the episode, minus those two scenes via Hulu. You’ll even see where several of the commenters on the episode had the same question of why the skit was missing. What do you think for those who saw it live – was it a parody? Was it necessary for NBC to license? Or, were they simply being overly cautious? Take part in the conversation below and Stay Tuned In!

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6 thoughts on “The Beauty and the Beast of Copyright Law

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