If you care about freedom of speech and the future of the Internet as a distribution platform for original content, you should care about Andy Baio’s willingness to stand up to the powers that be.
Baio, a popular blogger at waxy.org, has been hosting the files of a popular homegrown series, House of Cosbys, since November 2005. Last week, Baio received a threatening cease-and-desist letter from attorneys for Bill Cosby demanding he take down his copies of the series, which parodies Cosby’s voice, mannerisms, and some of his catchphrases (but not, in my view, in a mean way).
The series of short films originally appeared on Channel101.com, where it became extremely popular. After Cosby’s attorneys got Channel101.com to remove the videos, Baio began hosting them, he says, because they “deserve to be seen” – and he’s right.
In his announcement that he’ll fight the scare tactics of Cosby’s attorneys, Baio gets to the heart of the issue:
But I’m not removing House of Cosbys. House of Cosbys is parody, and clearly falls under fair use guidelines. I’m not taking it down, and their legal bullying isn’t going to work….Sorry, but the First Amendment protects satire and parody of a public figure as free speech. Also, the right of publicity only applies to unauthorized commercial use, and not a work of art or entertainment.
More than anything, this strikes me as a special kind of discrimination against amateur creators on the Internet. Mad Magazine, Saturday Night Live, South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and countless other mainstream media sources have parodied Bill Cosby over the years (see growing list below).
I’m not saying Cosby has to love the fact that his likeness is out there being parodied for anybody with high-speed internet and a unique sense of humor to appreciate. But Baio shares some pretty damning evidence with a list of popular, mainstream avenues where Cosby has been parodied before without resorting to what amounts to legal scare tactics, and I’m betting that many of those shows in the list treated Cosby with much less admiration, no matter how off-kilter House of Cosbys is.
On this issue, Cosby should take a page from Chuck Norris’ book. The legendary actor recently became aware of the popular “Chuck Norris facts” meme travelling throughout the web, and rather than calling his lawyers, he instead reached out to his audience on the web with this message:
I’m aware of the made up declarations about me that have recently begun to appear on the Internet and in emails as “Chuck Norris facts.” I’ve seen some of them. Some are funny. Some are pretty far out. Being more a student of the Wild West than the wild world of the Internet, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s quite surprising. I do know that boys will be boys, and I neither take offense nor take these things too seriously.
After that, Chuck proceeded to spin the message into a sales pitch for his latest book. He obviously realizes that you can’t spend your time trying to stifle the open distribution channel of the web- you can only hope to come off well, and maybe sell a few of your widgets in the process.
Unfortunately, Bill Cosby has done neither. Maybe he’ll reconsider if peole stand behind Andy Baio’s small act of courage and send a message that the web will not be sued into submission.