GoldieBlox versus the Beastie Boys: The fight that should have never been

November 29, 2013

GoldieBlox v Beastie BoysWrapping up a faux-copyright dispute that could have been avoided with the exercise of a little prudence, toy company GoldieBlox issued an open letter to the Beastie Boys, essentially extending an olive branch.

In case you missed this little debacle, here’s a quick rundown:

GoldieBlox is a company that makes toys geared toward (no pun intended) encouraging young girls to take up an interest in engineering.  As part of an ongoing, successful marketing strategy, the company produces short videos set to popular songs (with the lyrics modified in varying degrees).

For example, GoldieBlox released a video this summer entitled, “GoldieBlox Breaks into Toys R Us,” set to Queen’s “We are the Champions.” The video has over one million views.

But that number is nothing compared to the company’s most recent video, set to the Beastie Boys’ “Girls,” which saw several times as many views – at least, until the company removed the video as part of the aforementioned “olive branch” (as of the writing of this article, you can still view the video on Slate’s page).

The dispute between the Beastie Boys and GoldieBlox may have started at either one of two points, depending on your perspective.

To GoldieBlox, the legal fight started “last week, when [the Beastie Boys’] lawyers called [GoldieBlox] with threats that [the company] took very seriously.”

To the Beastie Boys, the dispute started when GoldieBlox sued the band seeking a declaratory judgment holding that the company’s use of “Girls” in its video is fair use and therefore not copyright infringement.  According to the Beastie Boys, the so-called “threats” from their lawyers were nothing more than an inquiry into how and why the song had been used in the ad without permission.

To their credit, the Beastie Boys have a long history of supporting fair use.

Why, then, did they even raise an eyebrow when this video was released?  Because the band also has a long history of refusing to allow their “music and/or name to be used in product ads.”

And, regardless of the uplifting message conveyed by the video – that young girls should not be confined to playing with stereotypical girl toys – its primary purpose is to sell a product.

The Beastie Boys have been on the negative side of the publicity surrounding this spat, at least when it was initially reported.  Media outlets framed this dispute as a David and Goliath tale, with GoldieBlox as a small, up-and-coming startup just trying to defend itself from the musical giant that is the Beastie Boys.

What’s further of note is the focus that many news reports gave to the song’s original lyrics, which, to those unfamiliar with the Beastie Boys or the song “Girls” itself, seems terribly misogynist.  The song itself is a parodic slam against misogynist hip-hop culture, and the Beastie Boys themselves have repeatedly spoken out publicly for women’s rights.

In fact, after bandmember Adam Yauch’s death last year, articles about his feminist legacy cropped up across the web.

Speaking of Adam Yauch’s death, GoldieBlox’s reason for taking down the video in question is because “the late, great Adam Yauch had requested in his will that the Beastie Boys songs never be used in advertising.”

Despite GoldieBlox CEO Debbie Sterling and “Team GoldieBlox” being “huge fans” of the Beastie Boys, they “were completely unaware” of this little fact before they dumped countless hours into producing the video.

According to Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, GoldieBlox’s hyper-aggressiveness is part of a strategy to convince potential investors that it’s ready for the big time.

I’m not now, nor have I ever been, the CEO of a startup Silicon Valley company, so I can’t speak to the efficacy of such tactics.

However, I can’t imagine that either the Beastie Boys’ or GoldieBlox’s respective public images will come out of this quarrel unblemished, so, as I suggested at the beginning of this piece, it may behoove these and other parties similarly situated to exercise a bit of prudence before making public statements or taking legal action.