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How Mad Magazine Struck a Blow for Parody Songwriters Everywhere

In the early years of Mad Magazine, they frequently would do song parodies, like the following parody of Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," done by Mad as "Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady."

The songwriters of the world did not like the fact that Mad able to do full versions of their songs, just as parodies. This was back when sheet music was actually still a major source of income for songwriters, as people would still buy the sheet music to play for themselves at home. Okay, it was obviously much less of a big deal than it was 30-40 years before this point, but it was still a real source of income for guys like Irving Berlin and they believed that this sort of parody was an infringement on their copyrights.

So Berlin and a group of songwriters got together and sued Mad following the release of the fourth Mad book collection (while Mad Magazine sold quite well, they REALLY cleaned up when they collected their bits into books).

The case went to District Court in New York. The judge there ruled song lyrics, especially those that only contained verbal parodies of the original song were protected. The issue was that you could only do a limited borrowing of the original song. In other words, you had to make sure effectively ALL of the lyrics were changed. If you contained too much of the original song, you were still considered that you were infringing on their copyright.

The songwriters had chosen 25 song parodies to contest and Kaufman cleared Mad on all but two of them, which he believed contained too much of the original material. The songwriters were looking for $1 per song per issue of Mad sold, so we're talking about millions of dollars here, even for just those two songs ("Always," a parody of Berlin's "Always" and "There's No Business Like No Business," a parody of Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business").

Luckily, when Mad appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court in New York, Judge Charles Metzner ruled that ALL of the songs were protected. That, though, was more of a specific decision on these specific songs. They continued the general "you better not have a notable amount of the original song in your parody" aspect of it all.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, who turned down hearing the case, which sealed the victory for Mad and was a historic ruling for song parody writers everywhere!

Thank goodness, because otherwise we would have been deprived of the genius of "Leather Clothes Must Be Worn," sung to the tune of "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"...

Thanks to reader Bill R. for correcting a few of the above points!

If anyone else has a suggestion for an interesting piece of comic book history that they'd like to see me explore, just drop me a line at brianc@cbr.com!

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