2 Live Crew Case
Campbell a.k.a Skywalker, et al
vs, Acuff Rose Music Inc.
510 US 569 (1994)
For more than thirty years, I practiced law in Nashville, Tennessee; twenty of that stint was as a solo-practitioner. During that time I employed four incredible legal assistants, who helped their boss appear smart, organized and efficient.
My clients were a diverse group from different walks of life including injured indigents, wealthy doctors, and businessmen. Each client was represented with the same zeal and commitment.
I was fortunate to participate in several cases that actually expanded and changed Tennessee law. Those cases concerned legal issues where I had developed some expertise, worked hard preparing and trying the case before a judge or jury and then successfully either defended or reversed the trial court judgment on appeal.
Perhaps my most famous case, Luther Campbell, et al vs. Acuff Rose Music Inc. (“2 Live Crew case”), took a completely different route than most of my other cases. Luther Campbell and the other members of the rap group 2 Live Crew were sued in federal court in Nashville for copyright infringement of the song Pretty Woman, made famous by Roy Orbison, owned by Acuff Rose. 2 Live Crew had requested to license the original song to compose and perform a parody. The request was denied because of 2 Live Crew’s reputation in the music industry for using provocative lyrics on its album, As Dirty As You Want To Be. Acuff Rose claimed that the parody would diminish the value of its original work. Despite the denial, 2 Live Crew released Bald Headed Woman on its new album, As Clean As They Wanna Be. The parody contained no foul language and I reminded the courts that Acuff Rose had previously licensed the work for a movie that centered on a street-walking prostitute.
The group’s attorney in Miami retained me because of my reputation as a litigator in Nashville, where the lawsuit had been filed. Suddenly, I was involved in my first copyright case, and I had not reviewed the 1976 Copyright Act since law school.
While reviewing the Act and the Fair Use Doctrine, I soon realized that not all uses of original works had to be licensed; that there were certain exceptions where permission was not required, including parody, and that there was a long history of parody as an art form in the United States dating back to colonial days. Congress in crafting these exceptions recognized that parody was an art form even where the owner of an original work would not desire the work to be satirized and ridiculed.
2 Live Crew won a judgment from the trial court. Acuff Rose filed an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Canonicate, which reversed the trial judge and held that ”all commercial parodies required a license and permission of the owner of the original work.” I was then left with the task of attempting to appeal this ruling to the United States Supreme Court.
Fortunately, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, which is not automatic. In 1993 the Supreme Court only accepted about eighty cases.
It was at this juncture that I called Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, who connected me to NBC’s legal department. From this point forward, the case no longer simply involved the parties, it became very important many powerful interested parties, who lined up on both sides to file amicus briefs (friends of the court) to persuade the Supreme Court. In support of Acuff Rose, Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton, the Estate of Cole Porter, the Estate of Rogers and Hammerstein and other owners of original works argued the decision of the Court of Appeals should be affirmed. Meanwhile in support of 2 Live Crew, NBC, Time Warner, Mad Magazine, Monty Python, Mark Russell, Dr. Demento, and the Capitol Steps argued that the Court of Appeals should be reversed. Clearly, much was at stake for the future of parody if permission was required.
The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision reversed the Court of Appeals. It is rare that all of the justices agree as to the outcome of a case. In its written opinion, the Supreme Court recognized that nearly all parodies are commercial in nature and that the Fair Use Doctrine exception applied, recounting the long history of parody and its importance in American culture.
The song and album was not nearly the financial success As Dirty As You Want To Be. On the other hand, for almost twenty-five years, this case has remained the leading and most often cited opinion in support of parody’s relationship to the Fair Use Doctrine. Parody remains alive and well, and Saturday Night Live continues to satirize political figures such as Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and others, without their permission. I am proud to have played a part to legally protect this historic art form.
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