Documentary Filmmakers Stiff Arm Copyright Infringement Suit over Use of “Super Bowl Shuffle” Clips
For those of us of a certain age, the song "Super Bowl Shuffle" and associated music video, which featured members of the championship 1985 Chicago Bears rapping, left an indelible memory. Indeed, who can easily forget the image of a headband-wearing Jim McMahon laying down the following lyrics with panache?
I motivate the cats, I like to tease.
I play so cool, I aim to please.
That's why you all got here on the double
To catch me doin' the Super Bowl Shuffle.
More recently, a federal court in Illinois found a documentary filmmaker's limited use of clips from that infamous song in a documentary about the '85 Bears to be fair use. (Red Label Music Publishing, Inc. v. Chila Productions, No. 18-7252 (N.D. Ill. May 30, 2019)).
"Super Bowl Shuffle" was recorded only months before the 1985 Bears won the Super Bowl in January 1986 and it then blitzed the Billboard charts to peak at number 41. Honoring that great team's legacy, Chila Productions (the "filmmakers") released a documentary in 2016 entitled, '85: The Greatest Team in Football History, which features interviews of former players, coaches and fans of and from that historic season. The film also offers some commentary and historical perspective on the "Super Bowl Shuffle." In doing so, the filmmakers used snippets from both the song and the video: the video portion comprise 59 seconds broken into 16 clips, each lasting between one to eight seconds; only one of the video clips includes the music. The filmmakers also used the song for 8 seconds of the 100-minute documentary, of which only four seconds contain lyrics (and none show any of the players' individual raps or verses, or any of the chorus).
In October 2018, Red Label Music Publishing ("Plaintiff"), which owns the rights to the song, sought to strip the "Super Bowl Shuffle" clips from the documentary by filing a complaint alleging copyright infringement against the filmmakers and
others involved in the production and distribution of the documentary. In response, the filmmakers quickly filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that their use of clips of the material in question was fair use because, first, their film was a historical commentary and second, the film used only brief snippets of the song.
As many of you know, fair use is a statutory defense to a claim of copyright infringement. The Copyright Act sets out four non-exclusive factors for the court to consider in making the determination whether a specific use of a protected work is fair, namely (1) the purpose and character of the use, (2) the nature of the copyrighted work, (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole, and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. 17 U.S.C. § 107. In making its determination in favor of the filmmakers, the court focused on the first, third and fourth factors.
The first factor of the fair use test is often described as an analysis of whether the use is "transformative"; that is, whether the new work merely supersedes the original work or instead adds something new with a further purpose. In this case, the court ruled that the snippets of the song and video were used for their factual content, rather than their expressive content, and that the use of the "Super Bowl Shuffle" clips in the film served as commentary and "a historical guidepost." According to the court, such uses differed from the work's original purpose to entertain and raise money for the needy.
Regarding the third factor, which considers the amount taken by the infringers "in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole," the court ruled that the filmmakers' use of the "Super Bowl Shuffle" was "insubstantial" in that the filmmakers only used eight seconds of the song's music (which represented a fraction (2%) of the six-minute song) and only a small portion of video. In all, the court found the filmmakers stayed onside when it came to fair use and that they did not take the "heart" of the work and used "no more than [was] necessary to serve as a historical reference point in the commentary." Thus, this factor also weighed in favor of fair use.
With respect to the fourth factor, which considers the effect of the use upon the potential market for the work, the court found that it did not favor either party. The Plaintiff argued that the filmmakers' use of the clips adversely affected the licensing market for its work, but the judge ruled that Plaintiff failed to articulate any tangible way that the documentary reduced or would reduce the potential licensing market for clips of the "Super Bowl Shuffle." The court surmised that the secondary use by the filmmakers served a "different market function than the song does standing alone" and it was unlikely that the use of the song in the documentary would prevent any consumer from purchasing or licensing the song, nor would potential purchasers of "Super Bowl Shuffle" clips purchase the documentary from the filmmakers instead of licensing clips themselves from the Plaintiff. Since there was a market for licensing of clips of the song, Plaintiff may have suffered a little damage, according to the court, but not enough to have this factor weigh in favor of either party.
The filmmakers' game plan was successful, as the final score in this case revealed: the first and third factors weighed in favor of fair use, and the fourth factor was neutral at best (in a footnote, the court stated that even if for the sake of argument factor four weighed in the Plaintiff's favor, it would still be insufficient to overcome the substantial weight of the other factors). In the end, the Plaintiff's claims were stuffed at the line, with the court granting summary judgment in favor of the filmmakers. As the prevailing party, the filmmakers could seek a further end zone celebration by seeking an award of attorney's fees. However, any such celebration will have to wait as the Plaintiff has filed a notice of appeal to the Seventh Circuit.