Licensing is a big money-maker for many artists, but there is more at risk with merchandising and licensing than money. Some artists feel that by licensing their creative work to a commercial purpose, they are cheapening it and harming their artistic integrity. Some of them feel that when they license their work, they appear to be offering a personal endorsement of the product or service, and therefore their personal integrity is at stake, as well. With all these concerns, some artists choose not to license their work at all. Among these artists are the surviving members of the Beastie Boys.

The Beastie Boys’ reluctance to license their songs for commercial use came to public attention recently in a legal battle with a toy company that used an altered version of one of their songs in an online video. The video, produced by GoldieBlox, a maker of toys marketed to girls, uses the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls” (a sexist song from early in the band’s career) with lyrics altered to convey a message that is more supportive of girls. The video quickly went viral, with many people sharing it on social media and remarking on its positive message.

The Beastie Boys and Universal Music Group were less impressed with the video. According to an open letter the Beastie Boys sent to GoldieBlox, they sent a letter to the toy company asking how it came to use their song, noting the band’s longtime reluctance to license their song for commercial use. GoldieBlox responded by filing a claim in federal court asking for a declaratory judgment that its use of the song was permissible through the fair use provision of the Copyright Act. However, days later the company pulled the video from the Internet.

Fair Use is a complex and widely misunderstood concept in intellectual property law. It has been used in the past to defend parody versions of songs against claims of copyright infringement. However, it is far from clear that the court will consider the use of the song in this case as fair use, especially considering the fact that GoldieBlox used the song in a commercial effort to sell toys.

It’s important for artists and athletes to think carefully before signing a merchandising or licensing deal. Qualified attorneys with experience in Florida’s sports and entertainment industries can help them to understand the terms of the deal and their possible consequences.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter, “Beastie Boys, ‘Girls’ Viral Video in Copyright Infringement Fight,” Eriq Gardner, Nov. 22, 2013