Are Vintage-Inspired Music Videos Legal?

Are Vintage-Inspired Music Videos Legal?

                                                                John Pietruszka

                                                             (1L Delegate, Music) 


Looking for new music on YouTube, I stumbled upon a song by one of my favorite contemporary rock bands, Wolf Alice. The song, entitled “Beautifully Unconventional,” made my ears perk up with its tight, reverb-laden guitar lines and catchy chorus. I was not surprised. This band always delivers the goods. The closest comparison I can make to their sound is if Nirvana and Bikini Kill had a baby (just take one listen to them and you may know what I mean).

What really struck me about this song though was not the music itself, but the interesting music video that the band and their label RCA made to promote the single. It features their lead singer dressed in a white dress and a blond wig; a look that seems uncannily similar to Marilyn Monroe. The other band members accompanying her are dressed in black and white suits and are play vintage instruments (think The Beatles on their classic debut on the Ed Sullivan Show in the early sixties). As a newly minted law student with an interest in intellectual property and copyright law, I could not help but ask: How can they do this? How can they seemingly rip off Marilyn Monroe and The Beatles by using the same aesthetic in their music video? Doesn’t copyright law exist to protect artists from issues like this?

Then I slowly realized that this is not a new thing. Just watch the video for Nirvana’s “In Bloom” or the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Dani California” and you will see what I mean. If you don’t care for rock music, watch the music video for “Treasure” by Bruno Mars (the vibe is so similar to the Temptations that it is scary). Bands have been using the aesthetic of other bands in their music videos for quite some time now. But these videos still left me with the open question: How can this be? Even if everyone is doing it, why aren’t the legal teams for these labels ripping their hair out?

It seems as though artists and labels do this because Federal Copyright Law allows them to do so. 17 U.S.C § 102 (a)(7) extends copyright protection to original audiovisual works. Given this statute, one would think that when contemporary artists seemingly steal the aesthetic of older ones that it would be copyright infringement. But this could not be case for a number of reasons. It is possible that there is no specific copyright for the audiovisual work used by these bands or that they were given permission by property holder (be it The Beatles, their label, i.e. the owner of the intellectual property) to use the aesthetic. It is also entirely possible that these music videos fall under the category of “ideas” that manifest in their own work, which are not considered protected intellectual property pursuant to 17 U.S.C. (b).

Whatever may be the case, these videos are not copyright infringements and I am incredibly thankful that Federal Copyright Law is flexible enough to allow for contemporary music artists to use vintage inspired aesthetics in their music videos. These videos provide an important avenue through which bands are able to pay homage to older artists who may have been influential to them. For thousands of fans, they are a means of transporting them back in time to the glory days of rock and roll. For myself, they have become, if only for a few minutes, a simple respite from the daunting stresses of 1L coursework.

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