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British Comedy Gets the Last Laugh Following Parody Law Reform

The new Intellectual Property Act 2014 which came into effect last month has effectively legalised the art of parody, a comedic genre which, believe it or not, has until now been classed as illegal.

The new Intellectual Property Act 2014 which came into effect last month has effectively legalised the art of parody, a comedic genre which, believe it or not, has until now been classed as illegal.

Previously, those using copyrighted content for parody purposes did so under the risk of being sued under the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988. This may come as a surprise to those of us who may already have believed parody to be legal, seeing as the comedic medium is already widely utilised in Britain, its caustic tone, fitting in well with our dry sense of humour as a nation. However, despite our long history of parody, it has always been considered illegal under UK law.

Parody laws were once much easier to enforce, as prior to the advent of the internet it was only possible for people to publish their creative work via traditional channels such as television, radio, or print, which must comply with industry guidelines and regulations. However, in the internet age these rules no longer apply and when it comes to publishing creative content, it's pretty much no holds barred. The legalities seem to matter very little indeed. At the click of a button, would-be parodists are able to upload their work to a potential audience of millions.

Fortunately the new laws relating to parody seem to understand this seismic shift in the way we consume our media and creative content and so under the new rules, copyrighted material such as video and audio clips can be re-used for parody purposes as long as the new project is sufficiently different to the original, and does not intend to copy it.

Sounds like a pretty good deal for comedians who use parody as a medium, right? Well, there's a catch. Under the new rules parody makers can still be sued, but only if their work is deemed to be discriminatory. In itself, this seems perfectly fair, but if a parody is accused of being discriminatory, things get a bit weird. In this instance, it will be up to the judge presiding over the case to decide whether or not it's funny, a facet of the law that has attracted some confusion. Comedian and former barrister Clive Anderson told the BBC that he has concerns over "whether a judge who's spent years and years in the courtroom is going to be able to judge that very carefully," suggesting they may need to bring in external "experts," to help them with this particular detail.

Despite this bizarre aspect of the Act, it has been greeted with widespread support by the comedic community. Cassetteboy, the creator of parodies that cut together various clips from certain TV shows, had previously likened the plight of the British parodist to a "painter in a country where paint is illegal." On October 1st, the day the new law effectively legalised the practice, the anonymous video editor posted a mashup of clips of David Cameron to create a 'rap,' which had the words "Seriously though, Dave, thanks for legalising parody videos," in its description.

Graham Linehan, the writer behind a number of UK sitcoms including Father Ted, said that the new law is "brilliant," and that it replaces laws that were "restrictive."

Prior to the new laws being introduced there have been several incidents of high profile parodies falling foul of the law, with a number of videos being removed from YouTube overnight after claims by copyright holders who failed to see the funny side. In August 2010 a parody of Jay Z and Alicia Keys' 'Empire State of Mind' called 'Newport State of Mind' - which re-wrote the original lyrics to be about the Welsh city of Newport, rather than New York City - was taken down after a copyright claim by EMI. Prior to its removal, the song had attracted 2.5 million views, and had even been featured on BBC News.

Another parody which fell afoul of the old copyright laws in the late noughties was the oft-recreated parody of Downfall, a German film depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler. The clip, of Hitler's angry reaction to the discovery that the war had been lost, is re-subtitled by parodists to imply that he was angry about something else, such as him finding out that Santa Claus isn't real and that his Xbox Live account had been cancelled. Constantin Films, the movie's production company took issue with this and began getting videos removed en masse, but the joke was too widespread, and they were eventually forced to give up.

In March this year, author Miriam Elia attracted the wrath of Penguin, when her spoof of the 'Peter and Jane' series, which have been used to help teach children how to read, fell foul of parody laws. Elia's version humorously dealt with topics that would be controversial in a childrens' book, such as transvestism, sex, and death. Penguin issued the author with a cease-and-desist letter, asking her to destroy all copies of the book once she'd sold enough to cover production costs, even going so far as offering to destroy them for her. Elia faced a legal battle with Penguin, but at present the book is still available for sale on her website.

Following the overhaul of the parody laws, industry commentators have predicted an online "explosion of creativity". For the first time in the UK, creators of online parody will be able to practice their craft, free from the worry of legal action.

Wayne Beynon is an IP lawyer at Cardiff and London based law firm Capital Law: