Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Court denies injunction against use of Imagine in film advocating for intelligent design

Last week the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York denied the request for a preliminary injunction by Yoko Ono against further showing and distribution of the movie Expelled, which, as I wrote last month, criticizes evolution, promotes the teaching of intelligent design, and in the process uses 15 seconds of John Lennon's song "Imagine."
In a twenty-three page memorandum opinion and order issued today, the Court held that the producers and distributors of Expelled are likely to prevail on their fair use defense and denied Plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction in its entirety. As I wrote, If the filmmakers had tried merely "to capitalize on the film as soundtrack material that would be attractive to an audience would likely not be fair use, but, if, as seems likely, the song is quoted to criticize its atheism, that use would likely constitute fair use, regardless of whether Ono finds the users' message objectionable." The court, apparently, thought similar things (citations and footnotes omitted; hyperlink added):

Defendants’ use is transformative because the movie incorporates an excerpt of Imagine for purposes of criticism and commentary. The filmmakers selected two lines of the song that they believe envision a world without religion: “Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.” (“Imagine lyrics, Ex. D to Weber Decl.) As one of the producers of “Expelled” explains, the filmmakers paired these lyrics and the accompanying music to a sequence of images that “provide a layered criticism and commentary of the song.” The Cold War-era images of marching soldiers, followed by the image of Stalin, express the filmmakers’ view that the song’s secular utopian vision “cannot be maintained without realization in a politicized form” and that the form it will ultimately take is dictatorship. The movie thus uses the excerpt of “Imagine” to criticize what the filmmakers see as the naïveté of John Lennon’s views. The excerpt’s location within the movie supports defendants’ assertions. It appears immediately after several scenes of speakers criticizing the role of religion in public life. In his voiceover, Ben Stein then connects these sentiments to the song by stating that they are merely “a page out of John Lennon’s songbook.” In defendants’ view, “Imagine” is a secular anthem caught in a loop of history recycling the same arguments from years past through to the present. We remind our audience that the ideas they just heard expressed from modern interviews and clips that religion is bad are not and have been tried before with disastrous results.” (Sullivan Decl. ¶ 21.) The filmmakers “purposefully positioned the clip . . . between interviews of those who suggest that the world would be better off without religion and an interview suggesting that religion’s commitment to transcendental values place limits on human behavior. . . . mak[ing] the point that societies that permit Darwinism to trump all other authorities, including religion, pose a greater threat to human values than religious belief.” (Id. ¶ 20.)

Defendants’ use of “Imagine” is similar to the use at issue in a recent decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in which fair use was found, Blanch v. Koons. There, the visual artist Jeff Koons copied photographer Andrea Blanch’s photograph from a fashion magazine without permission and incorporated a portion of it into one of his paintings. 467 F.3d at 247. . . . As in Blanch, defendants here use a portion of “Imagine” as “fodder” for social commentary, altering it to further their distinct purpose. Just as Koons placed a portion of Blanch’s photograph against a new background, defendants here play the excerpt of the song over carefully selected archival footage that implicitly comments on the song’s lyrics. They also pair the excerpt of the song with the views of contemporary defenders of the theory of evolution and juxtapose it with an interview regarding the importance of transcendental values in public life. Plaintiffs contend that defendants’ use of “Imagine” is not transformative because defendants did not alter the song, but simply “cut and paste[d]” it into “Expelled.” As the foregoing discussion illustrates, however, this argument draws the transformative use inquiry too narrowly. To be transformative, it is not necessary that defendants alter the music or lyrics of the song. Indeed, defendants assert that the recognizability of “Imagine” is important to their use of it. (Sullivan Decl. ¶ 16.) Defendants’ use is nonetheless transformative because they put the song to a different purpose, selected an excerpt containing the ideas they wished to critique, paired the music and lyrics with images that contrast with the song’s utopian expression, and placed the excerpt in the context of a debate regarding the role of religion in public life. Plaintiffs also contend that defendants’ use of “Imagine” is not transformative because it was unnecessary to use it in order to further the purposes defendants have articulated.

Determining whether a use is transformative, however, does not require courts to
to decide whether
it was strictly necessary that it be used. In Blanch, although certainly Koons did not need to use Blanch’s copyrighted photo, as opposed to some other image of a woman’s feet, in his painting, the Second Circuit did not suggest that this lack of necessity weighed against a finding of fair use. Similarly, in Bill Graham Archives, the Second Circuit found a transformative use in the defendants’ unauthorized inclusion of several of the plaintiff’s images—principally concert photos—in a coffee-table book
about the musical group the Grateful Dead. 448 F.3d at 607. Although the defendants manifestly could have proceeded without the plaintiff’s , which constituted only a small part of the book, this posed no obstacle to a finding of fair use.

As I said, I think the use of "Imagine" by the filmmakers without permission is legitimate fair use. Nonetheless, Lennon, and "Imagine" in particular, are being misrepresented. Lennon's song imagines a world unpolluted by religious sectarianism, not exactly a radical view in light of the issues of the day. But that's not a view many can find tolerable, even in the U.S. of 2008, and they'll resort to misrepresentation to support their intolerance. Today, the Wall Street Journal ran a story with the headline The Case Against John Lennon. The quote that highlights the column?

Nothing to live or die for — what a nightmare.

Mike Thomas points out that the line is "Nothing to kill or die for" and asks:

What is going on here? Why is the WSJ promoting a column with such a provacative title and using a misquote to mislead readers into a negative reaction against John Lennon? The column itself is a mess. It is poorly written, jumbled and fails to adequately explain how John Lennon or his song “Imagine” has anything to do with what the column appears to be about. Here is the pertinent section that mentions Lennon:

"Mr. Sharansky has a new book, titled Defending Identity. It would be equally accurate to call it The Case Against John Lennon. Or, more specifically, the case against 'Imagine,' Lennon's anthem to a world with 'no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too.' For Mr. Sharansky, a nine-year resident of the Perm 35 prison camp, that's a vision that smacks too much of the professed beliefs of the ex-Beatle's near namesake, Vladimir Ilyich.'

What the hell? Does he think he’s being clever or something? Lennon sounds like Lenin. Get it? So obviously they must be related or they must think alike or something right? Nevermind that “Lenin” was actually an alias for Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, while the surname Lennon dates back hundreds of years to old Ireland.

No, they sound alike so there must be a connection. Right? Kind of like how Obama sounds like Osama so they must be related too. Yeah. That’s the level of reasoning that the column sinks to.

Absolutely pathetic.

And of course he never goes back and explains how V.I. Lenin’s brutal and dictatorial ways have any similarity or correlation to Lennon’s ode to world peace. But fortunately for the cretins who run the WSJ editorial pages, John Lennon is dead and can’t defend his classic work against their asinine columnist’s offhanded smear.

Here's Ken Miller, a biologist from my alma mater speaking at Case Western Reserve University, where I now teach, speaking on intellligent design, evolution, and religion:

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