The Beastie Boys vs. GoldieBlox
Last week, everyone on the Internet watched the newest ad for Goldieblox, the company that sells engineering toys targeted at girls. In the most recent video, little girls build a Rube Goldberg machine while a parody of the Beastie Boys song “Girls” plays. If you’ve been in a cave and haven’t seen it, check it out here:
A few days ago, I saw a post from Joe Hanson of It’s Okay to be Smart, reporting that the Beastie Boys went after GoldieBlox for copyright infringement. GoldieBlox responded with a lawsuit alleging that the parody fell under fair use, and nerds across the Internet supported them and were horrified at the Beastie Boys for being such assholes.
Today, Devin Faraci of Badass Digest posted a recrimination, claiming that GoldiBlox is in the wrong because they:
1. are a company selling a product, no different than McDonald’s
2. filed suit first
3. painted the Beastie Boys as sexist
4. are “hiding behind fair use”
His argument is compelling, but ultimately misguided.
1. Yes, there is a difference between GoldieBlox and McDonald’s. If having something to sell means you’re just like McDonald’s, everyone ought to be buying red wigs and floppy shoes. Yes, GoldieBlox is a company; yes, they are selling something for money; but that’s where the likeness ends. GoldieBlox has a point of view – a mission, even – and a hell of a lot of people think it’s a good mission. They’re also a relatively small business, just starting out (though admittedly, they must have some money behind them with advertising this slick). Does that mean they should be allowed to do illegal acts, like steal a copyright? Absolutely not. But it does mean that a letter from a famous and wealthy band’s lawyer means a lot more to them than it means to McDonald’s. A letter from a lawyer is a very, very serious threat that means “do what we say or get ready to spend all your money on lawyers.”
2. Most individuals and small businesses don’t have the kind of money to defend themselves in court against a larger and motivated adversary, and so most of them would fold. GoldieBlox didn’t. I assume this is because, again, they must have some decent money backing them up, or they have a whole lot of guts and a good bank loan. Plus, filing suit first may have been a calculated move to save them money in the long run, since getting an injunction now may be cheaper and easier than defending a long case later. (I have no idea if this is so – it’s purely a guess on my part, but maybe some lawyers can weigh in below.)
3. I’ve read the suit and see nothing indicting the Beastie Boys as sexist. The song, though, is rightfully criticized. Faraci himself admits that the Beastie Boys have distanced themselves from much of their earlier work. The only point he has here is if other people are interpreting the Beastie Boys’ threat as uniquely targeting GoldieBlox, considering that they have a blanket policy against their work appearing in ads. If the Beastie Boys didn’t want to look as though they were shutting down a company that helps little girls get interested in engineering, they should have considered that earlier. Not having their lawyer send a threatening letter would have been far more convincing than issuing a follow-up statement saying they “strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes and igniting a passion for technology and engineering,” and I write that as someone who believes their statement and is a fan of their music. Hell, I even like the song “Girls” for being catchy and stupid.
4. But here’s the rub: the Beastie Boys’ song did not appear in this ad. The song in the ad is a clear parody of and political comment on the original. No one is “hiding behind fair use:” this kind of parody is exactly the kind of speech that should be protected from being silenced by parties with more money and lawyers. Had McDonald’s made a parody where the word “girls” was changed to “grills” and it was all about how delicious hamburgers are, the Beastie Boys and Faraci may have had a point. Instead, the GoldieBlox suit makes it plainly obvious that this parody stands in direct opposition to the original song:
Girls, all I really want is girls
And in the morning it’s girls
Cause in the evening it’s girls
I like the way that they walk
And it’s chill to hear them talk
And I can always make them smile
From White Castle to the Nile
Back in the day
There was this girl around the way
She liked my home-piece M.C.A.
He said he would not give her play
I asked him, “Please?” he said, “You may.”
Her pants were tight and that’s ok
If she would dance I would D.J.
We took a walk down to the bay
I hope she’ll say, “Hey me and you should hitthe hay!”
I asked her out she said, “No way!”
I should have probably guessed they’re gay
So I broke North with no delay
I heard she moved real far away
That was two years ago this May
I seen her just the other day
Jockin’ Mike D. to my dismay
Girls – to do the dishes
Girls – to clean up my room
Girls – to do the laundry
Girls – and in the bathroom
Girls, that’s all I really want is girls
Two at a time I want girls
With new wave hairdos I want girls
I ought to whip out my girls, girls, girls, girls,girls!
Girls. You think you know what we want, girls
Pink and pretty it’s girls.
Just like the 50’s it’s girls.
You like to buy us pink toys
And everything else is for boys
And you can always get us dolls
And we’ll grow up like them… false.
It’s time to change.
We deserve to see a range.
‘Cause all our toys look just the same
And we would like to use our brains.
We are all more than princess maids.
Girls to build the spaceship,
Girls to code the new app,
Girls to grow up knowing
That they can engineer that.
Girls. That’s all we really need is Girls.
To bring us up to speed it’s
Our opportunity is
I am most certainly not a lawyer, and so I cannot say for sure whether this qualifies as “fair use.” All I know is that this is political speech that absolutely should be protected, regardless of whether it’s also persuading people to buy a product. The Beastie Boys have attempted to silence an apt criticism of their song using a lawyer’s letterhead, and that’s not cool.