How Weird Al Keeps it Legal

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Thank God for fair use laws. You’d probably be surprised at how different our world would be without them; they provide the legal precedent for filmmakers, video game developers, journalists, and individuals in dozens of other industries to use existing materials to educate and entertain us.

They’re also the reason why Weird Al Yankovic is able to make a No. 1 album like Mandatory Funwithout getting sued back into the Stone Age.

Essentially, parodies qualify as original artistic creations. Unlike a cover of a song, a parody qualifies as fair use, which means artists like Weird Al don’t need licensing to perform their version of a song.

However, since Weird Al is still using the same melodies as the tracks he’s parodying, and profits quite a bit from the artists’ established success, shouldn’t the artists get some of the money Weird Al is making for his own renditions of their songs?

It’s About Relationships

The answer is no, they shouldn’t. Legally speaking, that is. If he wanted to, Weird Al could leave them out in the cold – not that Pharrell, Iggy Azalea, or Lorde are exactly struggling right now. Here’s the cool part, though: Weird Al gets permission from the original artists to make fun of their songs anyway.

According to his website, he “feels it’s important to maintain the relationships that he’s built with artists and writers over the years. Plus, Al wants to make sure that he gets his songwriter credit (as writer of new lyrics) as well as his rightful share of the royalties.”

When it comes to a dollar amount, there doesn’t seem to be a certain percentage that Weird Al gives to every artist. Instead, he negotiates each song individually and the cuts he shares range from a flat rate to a share of the royalties.

Can’t Say No

At this point, it seems like any artist should be happy that Weird Al is willing to parody them, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, the original artist of one of Weird Al’s biggest hits didn’t want anything to do with Weird Al at first. “Amish Paradise” might actually be more well-known than “Gangsta’s Paradise,” but Coolio, said no when Weird Al asked his permission to make a spoof of the song.

Obviously that didn’t stop Weird Al from making his parody, and eventually Coolio did come around. “I’ve since apologized to him,” he said. “Again, that was so stupid… That was a stupid thing for me to do. That was one of the dumbest things I did in my career.”

However, not everyone is apologizing for turning down Weird Al’s requests. Prince has consistently refused to give Weird Al his permission to spoof his songs. It seems possible that Prince might have a deeper personal vendetta against Weird Al, since, according to Al, when the two were assigned to sit in the same row at the American Music Awards, Prince’s lawyers sent Weird Al a telegram demanding that Al wouldn’t make eye contact with Prince. We’ve all heard that bullying is an epidemic in America, but I wouldn’t have guessed that it extended even to celebrities.

But you’d think that if Prince hated people making jokes at his expense, then he would really hate Dave Chappelle for his uncanny Prince impressions. Still, you can check out the cover for Prince’s song “Breakfast Can Wait.” Yes, the title is a reference to the Chappelle show sketch, and yes, the artwork is a picture of Dave Chappelle in full Prince regalia holding a plate of pancakes.

At any rate, it’s both refreshing and reassuring that Weird Al is enjoying the success he is; he embodies the idea that we should all learn to laugh at ourselves. Without that, the world would be a much more serious place.


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