GoldieBlox Should Win Its Court Case Against the Beastie Boys

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Dec. 12 2013 3:24 PM

Beauty and the Beasties

GoldieBlox should win its court case against the Beastie Boys—and it will, even if it loses.

Beastie Boys  Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond.
Beastie Boys Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond.

Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Way back in 1987, Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, AKA the Beastie Boys, released their debut album, Licensed to Ill. “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” was the album’s biggest hit. But it’s another song from Licensed to Ill, a simple ditty that clocks in at a mere 2:14, that’s on everyone’s lips today: “Girls.”

Set to a basic drumbeat and vibraphone loop, the Beasties rap in “Girls” about their love of ... girls. Sort of. As with many Beasties songs, the lyrics contain a lot of maybe serious/maybe satirical misogyny:

Girls, to do the dishes
Girls, to clean up my room
Girls, to do the laundry
Girls, and in the bathroom
Girls, that's all I really want is girls
Two at a time I want girls
With New Wave hairdos I want girls
I ought to whip out my girls, girls, girls, girls, girls!

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When the educational toy company GoldieBlox launched a new ad campaign last month, “Girls” became the soundtrack. But GoldieBlox added a twist. Deborah Sterling, a Stanford-educated engineer and the CEO of GoldieBlox, wants to coax young girls away from the toy store’s “pink aisle.” In particular, she wants girls to think less about becoming princesses and more about becoming engineers, architects, and scientists. So, rewriting and parodying “Girls,” GoldieBlox produced a fantastic commercial that went viral. Three impossibly cute and racially diverse girls sit bored in front of a TV watching princessed-out versions of themselves. And then they decide to take matters in hand. Using the pink, girly toys that they’ve apparently been hating, the girls assemble a fantastic Rube Goldberg machine that snakes throughout their house, yard, and sidewalk. (Take a look at the video.)

One of the best things about the GoldieBlox video is how it subverts the Beasties’ song to trash the very same gender stereotypes the Beasties celebrated. Here is GoldieBlox’s revision of the Beasties’ lyrics:

Girls, you think you know what we want
Girls, pink and pretty it’s girls
Just like the ‘50s it’s girls

You like to buy us pink toys
And everything else is for boys
And you can always get us dolls
And we’ll grow up like them, false

It’s time to change
We deserve to see a range
Cause all our toys look just the same
And we would like to use our brains

And we are all more than princess maids

Girls, to build a spaceship
Girls, to code a new app
To grow up knowing
That they can engineer that

Girls, that’s all we really need is girls
To bring us up to speed, it’s girls
Our opportunity is girls
Don’t underestimate girls

Clever and cute. And you might think that the Beastie Boys, who—by the way—made a career out of repurposing others’ music for their own songs through sampling, would roll with the punches. But that’s not what happened. Because the Beastie Boys never wanted their music to be used in commercials. In fact, Beastie Adam Yauch explicitly wrote that wish into his will. Shortly after Yauch passed away from cancer in 2012, Rolling Stone obtained a copy of the will, which included this provision:

“Notwithstanding anything to the contrary, in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes.”

The phrase “or any music or any artistic property created by me” was added by Yauch himself, by hand.

When the surviving Beastie Boys learned of the video they threatened to sue. Which, given GoldieBlox’s obvious expertise at the art of getting public attention, was a mistake. GoldieBlox pre-emptively filed a complaint in federal court in California, asking for a judgment declaring that GoldieBlox’s parody version of “Girls” was a perfectly legal example of what copyright lawyers call “fair use.” Fair use is a legal rule that lets us copy others’ work to the extent necessary to comment on it, criticize it, or—crucially—transform it into something new. Though the boundaries of fair use are fuzzy and constantly evolving, it is a central part of American copyright law. It is the principal way in which copyright, which by definition restricts speech, can co-exist with the First Amendment, which abhors restraints on speech.

GoldieBlox made sure that the press got a hold of its court filings. What followed was an avalanche of press coverage and millions more YouTube views of the GoldieBlox video. All timed perfectly for Black Friday and the start of the Christmas shopping season.

So, from GoldieBlox’s perspective, mission accomplished. On Nov. 27, the company posted a sort of love letter to the Beasties, in which they claimed to have reluctantly filed suit only after threats from the band’s lawyers. GoldieBlox also promised to remove the song from the video and dismiss the lawsuit now that they’d learned of MCA’s dying wish not to have his songs used in ads.

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