Are the Beastie Boys picking on science-loving girls? The copyright case is not so simple (Updated)

In an act of blatant hypocrisy, a legendary rap group is misusing copyright law to go after a clever viral video that celebrates girls who build machines instead of playing with teacups. Well, that’s the surface story at least — the facts are a little more complicated.

In case you missed it, the Hollywood Reporter reported on Friday that the Beastie Boys are threatening to take legal action over a video set to their 1986 song “Girls.” The video, which shows little girls who build a Rube Goldberg-type machine, replaces sexist lyrics like “Girls — to do the dishes/ Girls — to clean up my room/” with empowering words like “Girls — to build the spaceship/ Girls — to code the new app.”

The maker of the video, GoldieBlox, says the video is a parody and is protected under fair use, but that lawyers for the Beastie Boys and the band’s record label have told them the the video is a “big problem” that has a “very significant impact.”

The case has all the makings of a David and Goliath story, and everyone from the media to advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have rushed to defend the video, and decry the Beastie Boys as copyright bullies and hypocrites (the rap group has long been an aggressive advocate of fair use).

The pile-on is premature, however, and the legal issues are hardly cut and dry. For starters, the Beastie Boys, who have yet to offer their side of the story, have not sued anyone: the case is in court because GoldieBlox is asking a judge to declare they are doing nothing wrong.

[Update: the Beastie Boys have published an open letter that states in part: “As creative as it is, make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads… When we tried to simply ask how and why our song “Girls” had been used in your ad without our permission, YOU sued US.”]

As the band states, the video itself is not a simple parody. GoldieBlox is a toy maker and its video is not just social commentary, but an ad to help the company sell toys. Keep in mind that, in the ordinary course of things, a company that wants to use a popular song for marketing (especially a full 2 minutes of it), has to get a license from the songwriters to do so.

Finally, it looks like the Beastie Boys aren’t the only ones with over-reaching lawyers. A quick visit to GoldieBlox’s website reveals terms of service that are about as reasonable as the Spanish Inquisition; the terms includes gems like this one:

We grant you a limited, non-exclusive, revocable, non-assignable, personal, and non-transferable license to create hyperlinks to the Website, so long as: (a) the links only incorporate text, and do not use any trademark graphics that are owned or licensed to GoldieBlox, [..] (c) the links and the content on your website do not portray GoldieBlox or its products or services in a false, misleading, derogatory, or otherwise offensive matter,

Got that? In this view, it’s illegal to use a link like this one to suggest, for instance, that GoldieBlox’s lawyers are a bunch of bloviating, over-zealous hypocrites.

The point here is that the copyright case is not cut and dried. And on a moral level, the Beastie Boys (if they even knew about their lawyers’ actions) are hardly on the same plane as the bottom-feeding “sample troll” that just filed a copyright lawsuit against Jay-Z, and against the Beasties themselves on the day of band member MCA’s premature death.

As for whether the girl-power video is fair use, it’s hard to say — my own two cents is that the four-part test could go either way. Happily, we are unlikely to find out. It would be foolish for PR reasons for the Beastie Boys to press a case against a video that, even if it is marketing, delivers an inspiring and positive message to little girls everywhere.

At the same time, the Beastie Boys themselves long-ago eschewed the sort of beer-swilling sexism of their debut album, and became advocates for women amidst a general hip-hop climate of misogyny. Indeed, when band member MCA died last year, his death was marked by articles like “MCA’s Feminist Legacy.”

The bottom line here is that the Beastie Boys will likely pour a bucket of cold water over their lawyers. Let’s hope that GoldieBlox is willing to do the same, and resolve this dispute without smearing a band that deserves the benefit of the doubt. Here’s a copy of the video: