"Grease" Parody Faces Backlash Amid Fair Use Debate - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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“Grease” Parody Faces Backlash Amid Fair Use Debate

“Grease” Parody Faces Backlash Amid Fair Use Debate

Stop and reconsider Grease, the generationally acclaimed musical teeming with budding love, greasers, poodle skirts, and 1950s nostalgia. Have you ever wondered how the film has aged? Recall Grease’s “happy ending:” Sandy changes virtually everything about herself in order to gain Danny’s affection.1

Sketchworks Comedy, an Atlanta-based sketch comedy troupe, considered this dilemma in writing and producing Vape: The Musical, a parody of Grease.2 Vape provides commentary on the original work’s problematic themes and misogyny while set against the modern #MeToo landscape.3 After a successful run in Atlanta, Sketchworks Comedy planned to bring Vape to a New York City audience in August 2019, until the owners of the musical Grease issued the company a cease and desist letter, claiming copyright infringement.4

It is immediately apparent that Vape is a parody of Grease.5 For instance, Vape’s first musical number is called “Summer Snaps,” ostensibly playing off of the original Grease song, “Summer Nights.”6 Rather than singing about innocent summer love, the ensemble cast in Vape illustrates how modern dating involves nude selfies, social media, and dating apps like Tinder and Bumble.7 The iconic “Greased Lightning” is replaced by “Prius Lightning,” where Danny’s “T-Bros” extol their car’s fuel efficiency and minimal environmental impact.8

In one memorable scene in Vape, Danny apologizes to Sandy for his past behavior, explaining, “I have a reputation here and due to my shitty upbringing, I’m not allowed to look vulnerable or like I care about women in front of my boys.”9 Sandy understands, replying, “Lucky for you, society has taught me to give an unlimited amount of chances to undeserving men.”10

Vape accompanies criticism of Grease with an examination of pertinent social issues: an athletics coach attempts to sexually molest Danny11, Frenchy becomes an online school dropout12, and sexual tension arises between alpha males Danny and Kenickie.13 Vape concludes with Sandy, now vaping and dressed provocatively, explaining that she has experienced a “sexual awakening while also abandoning my identity and values.”14 Finally, the cast breaks into a final number, “You’re The One That I Want—Right Now.”15

Vape uses millennial slang, popular culture, a modern lens, and exaggeration to comment on the plot structure, issues, and themes of Grease and to criticize its misogynistic and sexist elements.16 At the same time, Vape highlights modern cultural concerns, including rape culture17, gun control18, homophobia19, the opioid epidemic20, climate change21, and the notion of casual sex.22

Congress has mandated that “fair use of a copyrighted work … for purposes of criticism [or] comment … is not an infringement of copyright.23 The law heavily considers whether the new work is transformative of the copyrighted work, while not usurping the market or serving as a substitute.24 Parody is a long-acknowledged exception to copyright, falling under the doctrine of fair use.25

Naturally, Grease has been parodied many times before. Comedy outlets like Mad Magazine26, Saturday Night Live27, Family Guy28, and College Humor29 have all poked fun at the classic musical. Sketchworks Comedy owner-producers Julie Shaer and Brian Troxell announced in a statement, “We are ready to fight not only for Vape: The Musical but for the future of all artists to create parody and satire.”30

Attorneys for Vape filed a complaint in the Southern District of New York on August 9, 2019, seeking a declaratory judgement that Vape constitutes fair use of Grease.31 A response to the complaint is due November 8.32

  1. Morgan Reale, Grease Ending Songs HD – You’re the One That I Want – We Go Together – Grease, YouTube (Feb. 18, 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYK5jBEUWJk.[https://perma.cc/W5GW-TR68]

  2. Press Release, Sketchworks Comedy, Meet the Comedy Group Suing Grease (Aug. 20, 2019) (on file with author).

  3. Id.

  4. Id.

  5. Complaint at 6, Sketchworks Indus. Strength Comedy, Inc. v. James H Jacobs (S.D.N.Y. 2019) (No. 19-cv-7470).

  6. Id. at 7.

  7. Id.

  8. Id. at 10.

  9. Id. at 10.

  10. Id.

  11. Id. at 10.

  12. Id.

  13. Id. at 12.

  14. Id. at 13.

  15. Id.

  16. Id. at 14

  17. Id. at 8.

  18. Id.

  19. Id. at 12.

  20. Id. at 8.

  21. Id. at 10.

  22. Id. at 13.

  23. 17 U.S.C. § 107 (1976).

  24. Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994) (holding that “the more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use.”

  25. 17 U.S.C. § 107 (1976).

  26. Cease, Mad Magazine, Mar. 1979.

  27. 50s Romance, Saturday Night Live (Feb. 9, 2013), https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/50s-romance/2752311.[https://perma.cc/X9ST-FWE2]

  28. Family Guy: Let’s Go to the Hop (Fox television broadcast June 6, 2000), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mlnz3BPz6nY.[https://perma.cc/A426-3NH5]

  29. Grease Dilemma, College Humor (Dec. 27, 2010), http://www.collegehumor.com/video/6368260/grease-dilemma.[https://perma.cc/52TQ-8YMW]

  30. Press Release, Sketchworks Comedy, Meet the Comedy Group Suing Grease (Aug. 20, 2019) (on file with author)

  31. Complaint at 1, Sketchworks Indus. Strength Comedy, Inc. v. James H Jacobs (S.D.N.Y. 2019) (No. 19-cv-7470).

  32. Dr. Seuss, Picasso, and Grease: Fair Use in Courts, Authors’ Alliance (Nov. 5, 2019), https://www.authorsalliance.org/2019/11/05/dr-seuss-picasso-and-grease-fair-use-in-the-courts.[https://perma.cc/Z3SJ-S4L4]

Matthew LaBau

Matthew LaBau is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a Notes & Articles Editor for Volume XXXI of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. He holds a B.A. in English from Georgetown University with a minor in Film & Media Studies.