GoldieBlox removes Beastie Boys song from girl power video: smart or cynical?

The internet has in been in an uproar for days over toy maker Goldieblox’s video that showed young girls building a Rube Goldberg machine to the tune of the Beastie Boys’ 1989 rap song “Girls,” but with new lyrics that celebrated female coders and astronauts.

Now, after a colossal copyright kerfuffle, the original video has disappeared, to be replaced with a new version that has the same images but a dull, generic tune — the video has gone from an inspiring empowerment messages to another dull YouTube clip. Why? What’s going on?

GoldieBlox explained the takedown on their blog in an open letter that reads in part:

Dear Adam and Mike,

We don’t want to fight with you. We love you and we are actually huge fans.

When we made our parody version of your song, ‘Girls’, we did it with the best of intentions. We wanted to take a song we weren’t too proud of, and transform it into a powerful anthem for girls. Over the past week, parents have sent us pictures and videos of their kids singing the new lyrics with pride, building their own Rube Goldberg machines in their living rooms and declaring an interest in engineering. It’s been incredible to watch.

Our hearts sank last week when your lawyers called us with threats that we took very seriously. As a small company, we had no choice but to stand up for ourselves. We did so sincerely hoping we could come to a peaceful settlement with you.

We want you to know that when we posted the video, we were completely unaware that the late, great Adam Yauch had requested in his will that the Beastie Boys songs never be used in advertising. Although we believe our parody video falls under fair use, we would like to respect his wishes and yours.

The story, then, shapes up as another episode of copyright bullying and a setback for parody and fair use law. In other words, the big bad music industry has crushed a creative little company — and dashed little girls’ dreams to boot.

I’m not so sure. As the Beastie Boys noted in their initial response to the fuss on Monday, it was GoldieBlox who sued them after the band asked why they were using their song in a toy commercial. Also, little GoldieBlox is represented in the legal dispute by gold-plated law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, who are best known for representing the likes of Apple and Google.

All this makes it feel like the new lyric switch is just the latest phase in a cynical marketing ploy by GoldieBlox to generate as much press controversy as they can to sell their toys (which have received poor reviews).

You can commend the company’s marketing chops, I guess, but the behavior still feels pretty shabby given that the original story led to a wave of headlines along the lines of “Beastie Boys don’t want to empower little girls to do science” — this feels unfair since the Beasties long ago shed their sexist image. Indeed, a band member’s recent death was marked by articles like “MCA’s Feminist Legacy.”

As for the fair use question — did the original GoldieBlox meet the four-part test that put it beyond the bounds of copyright claims? — we can leave that for the lawyers, and would be lawyers, to debate on Twitter. For the most refreshing take yet, see this great rap breakdown of the case by Sarah Feingold, the (girl!) lawyer for Etsy that includes:

“Beastie never said you may
Commercial use is not OK
If Goldie said, ‘Please’ we’d say ‘no way!

Goldie says “Hey!
Fair use and parody’s OK […]

Goldie’s market’s different all the way
Women are needed in technology!”

Goldie sues Beastie to their dismay

Girls, to become lawyers?
Girls, to write subpoenas?
Girls, to draft the licenses?
Girls, and talk with the press

Here’s the (lame) new version of the video: