Today Is The Anniversary Of 2 Live Crew’s Historic Supreme Court Win

2 Live Crew may be best known for its raunchy 1989 hit “Me So Horny” and the group’s public spats with family values groups and censors, but 22 years ago today, Luther “Luke Skywalker” Campbell and the Crew scored an important victory before the U.S. Supreme Court in a ruling that affirmed that parody constitutes a protected “fair use” of copyrighted material.

On its 1989 album As Clean As They Wanna Be — the scrubbed-up version of the then-filthy As Nasty As They Wanna Be — 2 Live Crew included a song called “Pretty Woman,” an unabashed parody of the 1964 Roy Orbison hit “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

The original song’s publisher, Acuff-Rose Music, sued Luke Skywalker Records over the tune’s unapproved use, alleging violation of copyright. A U.S. District Court granted summary judgement in favor of the rappers, noting that the 2 Live Crew version was clearly a parody and therefore protected by the Fair Use Doctrine in U.S. Copyright Law, which provides guidelines for when copyrighted material can be used without receiving permission from the copyright holder.

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While the law does not strictly mention parody, it does specifically list “criticism” and “comment” as categories of fair use, and some courts had previously held that parody fell under those umbrellas.

Acuff-Rose appealed, and this time the court sided against the rappers, explaining that while the 2 Live Crew song is indeed a parody, the commercial nature of the new song made it presumptively unfair. The appeals panel also said the rappers borrowed too much from the original work, and that it could result in market harm to the Orbison song.

But then, on March 7, 1994, a unanimous Supreme Court overturned the appeals court ruling, holding that the appeals court had erred in all three of its considerations of fair use.

First, SCOTUS held that the mere commercial nature of a parody does not automatically render it as an unfair use.

“The statute makes clear that a work’s commercial nature is only one element of the first factor enquiry into its purpose and character,” wrote Justice David Souter. “The Court of Appeals’s rule runs counter… to the long common law tradition of fair use adjudication.”

While the appeals panel had ruled that 2 Live Crew’s use of the Orbison song’s first line of lyrics and its opening bass riff were unfair because they represented the “heart” of the original, SCOTUS noted that in this case, that’s really the whole point.

“[T]hat heart is what most readily conjures up the song for parody, and it is the heart at which parody takes aim,” explained Souter, who also pointed out that, aside from this material taken from the original song, the rest of the 2 Live Crew piece “departed markedly from the Orbison lyrics and produced otherwise distinctive music,” would would qualify as a transformative use.

Finally, there was the matter of whether the 2 Live Crew “Pretty Woman” would harm the potential market for or value of the Orbison original.

The appeals court had held that, because the rappers were using the parody for commercial gain, there was the likelihood of significant market harm for the original.

But SCOTUS disagreed, noting that the concern for market harm is intended to be a question of “market substitution, not any harm from criticism.” In other words, would consumers buy the 2 Live Crew version as a substitute for the Orbison song?

“As to parody pure and simple, it is unlikely that the work will act as a substitute for the original, since the two works usually serve different market functions,” noted Souter.

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