Race Team Discovers That Parody Site Is Free Speech; While Drawing Extra Attention To Parody
from the 8-cylinders-of-funny dept
I've always enjoyed parody for its comedic value, not only in the obvious mocking of a parody's target, but in the oft-hilariously overblown responses from those targets. That said, when the target of parody goes legal, it usually dampens the fun a bit. For instance, when we begin losing a bit of comic strip humor in the form of parody because someone can't handle a band's lyrics showing up in Peanuts speech bubbles, someone is going out of their way to prove they can't take a joke. And when a cable company can't take a little honest ribbing and gets a hilarious YouTube video taken down, it's tempting to let one's temperature rise.
But then you hear the story of one website, supposedly the online presence of Generic Race Team, a motorsports racing group run by a mulleted dwarf with a penchant for booze and Pakistani storefronts. Confused? Well, it's all in good fun.
It's long gone now, but the Generic Race Team website and its associated Facebook and Twitter accounts were hilarious and scathing parodies of an actual racing team that runs Porsches in sports car racing called The Racer's Group, or TRG Motorsports. And when the parody site popped up, TRG began digging into who set it up.And what got TRG's panties so bunched up that they had to go digging into a relatively unknown website's ownership? Well, to be fair, the mocking-phasers on the parody were site were set to "destroy." For instance, TRG's CEO, Kevin Buckler, is transformed into Devin Fuckler, the aforementioned mulleted little person. The site included "articles" about Fuckler's plans to open up a motorsport race shop in Abbottabad, Pakistan, surely a hotbed of auto racing. Also, the real-life Buckler's Sonoma winery, Adobe Road, was transformed into Terra Cotta Path, a fake winery that garnered the supposed accolade of being "voted 'wine'" by a local culinary group. It got funnier from there.
Emblazoned atop the home page of the website was a story dated May 1, 2011, headlined “Sam Standeround Named GRT Employee of the Year, 2011!!” The intended humor was obvious—a person who “stands around” was named employee of the year before the year was even halfway over. A picture of the purported Mr. Standeround showed him to be a portly man with a curly mullet haircut, cradling a delicate poodle-type dog. Farther down the home page was pictured the “crew chief of the week,” a crazed-looking man with his extraordinarily large mouth agape exhibiting his almost complete lack of teeth.So who was behind all the fun? Well, it turns out that it was Jason Medbury, who just happened to work for The Media Barons, who just happened to be TRG's marketing company, which doesn't speak well for Kevin Buckler's personal relationship skills. Anyway, Kevin and TRG were understandably not pleased with their own marketing firm creating such a scathing parody site. They would have been perfectly justified in firing The Media Barons. Unfortunately, they also went legal, claiming defamation (court document below). More unfortunately, two different courts have now tried to educate TRG's legal staff of what parody is and why it is protected by the First Amendment. Per the latest ruling:
Appellants further argue that they were defamed by the website‟s inclusion of a fake sponsor, “Xtreme Super Awesome Eco Boost.” According to the (poorly digitally manipulated) picture of Xtreme Super Awesome Eco Boost, it comes with a pair of human testicles attached to the bottle.
Overall, the fake website created by Medbury was mean-spirited, offensive, and stupid. But it did not provide grounds for a legitimate libel claim. As was held in S.F. Bay Guardian, a case involving a fake letter-to-the-editor published in a parody edition of a newspaper, “[i]f a parody could be actionable because, while recognizable as a joke, it conveyed an unfavorable impression, very few journalistic parodies could survive. The butt of the parody is chosen for some recognizable characteristic or viewpoint which is then exaggerated. It is not for the court to evaluate the parody as to whether it went 'too far.‟ As long as it is recognizable to the average reader as a joke, it must be protected or the rather common parody issues of newspapers and magazines must cease to exist.” Since the average viewer would have recognized that the website was nothing more than a parody, it was not actionable as libel.In the end, the website has unfortunately been voluntarily taken down, probably because it isn't great business strategy to have now well-known parodies of customers created by a marketing company on display. Still, it's nice to see the courts get parody right, and even admit that they shouldn't be in the business of judging humor.