Why Is Parody Considered Fair Use but Satire Isn’t?

Both parody and satire employ humor in commentary and criticism, but the key difference, and the reason that under copyright law, parodic uses are more likely to be considered fair use than satire, is because of the difference in the purpose each serves. Satire is defined as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Compare that to the definition of a parody: “a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule.”

Parody vs Satire in Fair Use Law

Confusion over whether fair use permits parody or satire may come from the fact that the Copyright Act lists several examples of uses that can qualify for the fair use exception, including uses of copyrighted works “for purposes such as criticism [or] comment.”

While both parody and satire use humor as a tool to effectuate a message, again, the purpose of a parody is to comment on or criticize the work that is the subject of the parody. By definition, a parody is a comedic commentary about a work, that requires an imitation of the work. Satire, on the other hand, even when it uses a creative work as the vehicle for the message, offers commentary and criticism about the world, not that specific creative work. Therefore, parodies use copyrighted works for purposes that fair use was designed to protect.

In fact, when examining how copyright law protects parody the Supreme Court explained in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., “Parody needs to mimic an original to make its point, and so has some claim to use the creation of its victim’s (or collective victims’) imagination, whereas satire can stand on its own two feet and so requires justification for the very act of borrowing.”

Nonetheless, every attempt at a parody is not created equally, and in each instance the particular parody would need to undergo the four-factor fair use analysis to determine whether it constitutes a fair use. For example, an attempted parody of a song that borrows too much of the original composition and lyrics, and as a result sounds too much like the original, is less likely to qualify as a fair use.

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