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The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed Bourne Co.’s (“Bourne”) copyright infringement lawsuit against the creators of the hit television show Family Guy on March 16, 2009.
On October 3, 2007, Bourne, owner of the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” made famous in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, filed a complaint alleging copyright infringement against various Fox entities, Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy creator) and the show’s producers (collectively, “Defendants”). The complaint asserted that Defendants’ song “I Need a Jew” was “a thinly-veiled copy” of Bourne’s song, coupled with anti-Semitic lyrics. Bourne claimed that it did not authorize Defendants to use its song in Defendants’ creation of “I Need a Jew,” which was featured in the episode “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein.” Bourne further asserted that Defendants earned significant sums of money from their act of copyright infringement, and that Bourne, in turn, suffered substantial and irreparable harm as a result of his song’s association with the “vile and outrageous anti-Semitic message.”
“When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” has a controversial history. In the episode, after giving away his wife’s savings, Peter Griffin seeks help with his personal finances from a Jewish person based on his belief in the stereotype that all Jews excel in financial matters. Defendants initially withheld this episode from broadcasting in recognition of its offensive content; however, the episode was eventually distributed in syndication, re-runs, and various home video formats.
Unfortunately for Bourne, the legal precedent in Defendants’ favor was too substantial to overcome, and Judge Deborah A. Batts granted summary judgment to Defendants. Judge Batts relied on Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music Inc., in which the Supreme Court found that music group 2 Live Crew’s parody of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” did not infringe on Acuff-Rose’s copyright of the song since parodies fall under the fair use exception to copyright infringement. Judge Batts found that Defendants established sufficient facts that they were, in part, commenting on Walt Disney’s reputation as an anti-Semite, and that such comment may reasonably be perceived as parodic.
Judge Batts further found that Defendants prevailed under the traditional four factor fair use analysis, ultimately concluding that the lyrics and tone of “I Need a Jew” were strikingly different than those of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The four prongs of the fair use test consider: (1) the purpose and character of the use; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.
Bourne’s case is not Family Guy’s first win in a copyright infringement lawsuit. In March of 2007, Judge Dean Pregerson dismissed comedian Carol Burnett’s lawsuit against the show regarding its unauthorized depiction of her legendary “Charwoman” character working in a porn shop.
–Laura Jill Robinson
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