Americans have a long history of using parodies and satire in their political and social debates. Whether it’s the Daily Show, the Onion, or books like The Wind Done Gone, humor and poking fun can have a powerful political impact and are plainly protected by law. So what’s with Justin Bieber trying to take down the website freebieber.org?
In case you missed this one: Fight For the Future is worried that some pending legislation commonly called the "illegal streaming bill" (which EFF is also concerned about) might impose criminal penalties for the types of public performances that Justin Bieber used to make his name - posting videos of himself doing cover songs. To raise public awareness about the bill, freebieber.org hilariously posts images of Justin Bieber where he looks like he’s in prison, although it’s obvious that these are just his very famous head superimposed on the bodies of actual prisoners. The website urges viewers to help set Justin Bieber free by opposing the law. The campaign has sparked renewed media interest in the bill, which had been largely under the public radar. Mission accomplished!
Apparently, Justin Bieber (or his lawyers) don’t think the campaign is funny. They issued a cease and desist letter, claiming the site violates Bieber's intellectual property rights – a tactic we’ve seen all too often. EFF jumped in to help and, as explained in more detail in a letter we sent back to Bieber’s lawyers today, explained that those claims hold no water. Freebieber.org makes an obviously transformative use of Bieber’s image and engages in political (aka core First Amendment) speech.
What’s a little unusual here is that Bieber is also complaining that the campaign violates his publicity rights. The right of publicity usually prohibits the unauthorized use of a person’s name, likeness, voice, or other identifiable characteristic for a commercial purposes. However, the law is clear that an individual’s right to control uses of his or her name and likeness must be weighed against important free speech rights. The First Amendment protects transformative uses (like the ones at freebieber.org), especially those that do not intrude on a celebrity’s market for her own identifiable characteristics. So it’s hard to believe that Bieber’s lawyers really think he can prohibit this lawful (and effective) use of his image. More likely they, like so many others, were just hoping to scare Fight for the Future out of exercising its free speech rights.
The kind of important political speech that is the core of the Free Bieber campaign deserves the most protection of all, and we are glad that the folks behind it are willing to stand up and defend their right to Free Justin Bieber – whether he likes it or not.