How Mad Magazine Struck a Blow for Parody Songwriters Everywhere

Knowledge Waits is a feature where I just share some bit of comic book history that interests me.

For decades, fans have laughed along with Weird Al Yankovic's hilarious song parodies, but did you know that Weird Al always specifically gets permission from the artists that he parodies before he does a song parody?

From his official 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.

Therefore, when Weird Al was singing "Eat It"...

it was fully with the permission of Michael Jackson.

Here's the interesting thing, though. Note that Weird Al points out that he would be within his legal rights to do the songs WITHOUT permission, but he just seeks out permission anyways for his own reasons. That, though, was NOT the case when Weird Al got his start.

For years, the laws of parody were extremely draconian. It was not until a case involving the rap group, 2 Live Crew, that parody songs officially became protected under the United States copyright laws...

Up until that point, the rules for "fair use" parodies was a question of how much of the song that you took. In other words, you were not allowed to parody the bulk of the song in your parody. In this case, 2 Live Crew took a great deal of the original Roy Orbison song, "Pretty Woman," basically doing the whole chorus of the original song, only with parody lyrics. The United States Supreme Court ruled that that a parody could be "fair use" even under those circumstances. That essentially made it so that parody songs have been protected ever since (of course, even now, it's not really clear cut. None of this stuff is).

However, that's RECORDINGS of parody songs. That was the "final frontier," as it were, but before parody recordings became protected, the earlier battle was in the world of parody LYRICS. This, of course, was where Mad Magazine lived and it was here that Mad Magazine ended up in a legal dispute that also went all the way to the United States Supreme Court (well, kind of).

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