News & Analysis

GoldieBlox v. Beastie Boys: The issue is legal not ideological

- November 29, 2013 4 MIN READ

In 1987, the Beastie Boys released an infamous song titled ‘Girls’, which received a lot of backlash for positioning women as domestic sex objects. The lyrics speak for themselves:

Girls, to do the dishes
Girls, to clean up my room
Girls, to do the laundry
Girls, and in the bathroom
Girls, that’s all I really want is girls
Two at a time I want girls
With new wave hairdos I want girls
I ought to whip out my girls, girls, girls, girls, girls!

In recognising their poor judgement, they’ve since made numerous public apologies, stopped performing the song live or allowing it to be featured on “Best Hits” albums.

Recently, US-based toy-making startup GoldieBlox, known for spawning a movement to disrupt pink toy aisles across the America and eventually the world, created a video advertisement for their impressive line of engineering toys for girls. The video stars three adorable girls from diverse cultural backgrounds expressing boredom with traditional toys like dolls, and building a contraption called the Princess Machine that runs through the house.

The point is, girls shouldn’t be restricted to toys that don’t stimulate their intellect and creativity just because of their gender; and the company’s goal is explicitly “to get girls interested in engineering, build self-confidence and inspire the next generation of girls to be the builders of our future”.

This is obviously admirable.

Their advertisement, however, has caused a bit of a ruckus – despite how catchy and creative it is. This is because the background song they used in the advertisement is the Beastie Boys’ ‘Girls’ – but with lyrics changed. What they did, was turn a song that sexualises and devalues women into one that empower them. It is a clever remake, and a fair game – at least, ideologically.

The modified lyrics are:

Girls to build the spaceship,
Girls to code the new app,
Girls to grow up knowing
That they can engineer that. Girls.
That’s all we really need is Girls.
To bring us up to speed it’s Girls.
Our opportunity is Girls.
Don’t underestimate Girls.

The Beastie Boys, however, have strictly banned their tunes being used for commercial purposes. This was a conscious decision they made a number of years ago, and they have every right to place restrictions on the use of their art (i.e. Intellectual Property). After seeing the advertisement, the Beastie Boys approached GoldieBlox and asked why they ignored, what is essentially, their artistic rights. It was just a question, not a lawsuit.

Beastie Boys

Beastie Boys

But it became a lawsuit. Oddly, it was GoldieBlox suing the Beastie Boys for ‘Fair Use’ of their song. The Beastie Boys supplied a public response:

Like many of the millions of people who have seen your toy commercial “GoldieBlox, Rube Goldberg & the Beastie Boys,” we were very impressed by the creativity and the message behind your ad.

We strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes and igniting a passion for technology and engineering.

As creative as it is, make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads.

When we tried to simply ask how and why our song “Girls” had been used in your ad without our permission, YOU sued US.

While the modified version of song has no mention of the brand name nor any ‘call to action’, it is still designed to sell a product. GoldieBlox had no right to use the song, no matter how positive their intentions are, in any commercial context. It is not merely a parody, the advertisement features GoldieBlox’s line of toys.

The purpose of using the song was highly strategic. It’s a widely known song (catchy, despite the demeaning lyrics), it’s very easy to remake, and essentially it made the advertisement incredibly compelling.

Copyright laws exist for a reason. It’s to protect artists getting their works used without their permission – whether or not, in pursuit of a commercial venture, whether or not to change harmful perceptions of women. An artist has a right to place restrictions on the use or re-use of their art.

Because these restrictions were placed by the Beastie Boys, what GoldieBlox has done by disregarding the artist’s rights is steal a tune. It is similar to someone buying a mass of GoldieBlox’s toys, re-branding it with, say, ‘GoldieBlokes’, and then re-selling that same product.

Performing a song that panders sexist trash is a metaphorical crime in the socio-cultural context. Stealing is a crime (in the literal legal sense) in all contexts.

I argue the former is more damaging, because once perceptions are embedded into people’s minds, it’s hard to change. Obviously, Beastie Boys’ are not to blame for sexism towards women in society (that’s not to say that men don’t face sexism), but celebrities clearly have a huge impact, and reinforcing such stereotypes plays a small part in a chain of reactions.

That said, it’s not about who’s doing greater damage. Wrong is wrong, despite its degree of wrongness.

What’s interesting is that the media has spun the story to make it an issue of gender politics. The Beastie Boys may have written an offensive song in the 1980s, but that doesn’t indicate their views of women today – over 30 years, and at least two waves of feminism, later. In fact, they’ve praised GoldieBlox in their efforts to redirect the future of young girls. This is purely a legal issue, and spinning it to invoke an emotional response is going outside the purview of the argument.

Should the judge accept the matter as ‘Fair Use’, a precedent will be established that would lead to more companies using an artist’s intellectual property for commercial purposes. They would probably slip in a good message somewhere in the advertisement to justify its use.

For the time being, GoldieBlox has removed the modified version of Girls, and added instrumental music. Truthfully, it’s no where near as compelling.