Pippa and Britain’s parody problem

Pippa Middleton is reported to have threatened legal action against a spoof twitter account and book. But a recent study claims that parody has cultural and economic benefits for Britain, and the government is set to loosen copyright laws, allowing people to freely use others’ creations for comedy.

Goodbye to LOLs? Pippa Middleton is reported to have taken legal action against a spoof twitter account (Pic Angus Mordant/Demotix)

Goodbye to LOLs? Pippa Middleton is reported to have taken legal action against a spoof twitter account (Pic Angus Mordant/Demotix)

I’m fairly certain I’m the only person I know who owns a copy of Pippa Middleton’s Celebrate. I’m not even entirely sure why I own it.

It’s not actually a terrible book. Well, not that bad. At times it does seem that Pippa’s specialist subject on Celebrity Mastermind would be The Obvious, yes (ice makes things cold, that kind of thing). But recently a friend came for lunch, and we cooked a very nice salad from Pippa’s book.  I know not whether Pippa wrote the recipe herself or not. I don’t care very much who wrote it either. It was nice.

Until recent newspaper reports, I had no idea who was behind PippaTips, the Twitter account that poked fun Middleton’s more pedestrian pieces of advice (“#PippaTip: dressing up in nice clothes is a stylish way to look great at a party”). Again, I wasn’t hugely concerned. It was a reasonably amusing twitter feed, but I didn’t hang on every update.

Which is why I failed to notice it had been inactive for a month.

This lack of tips is apparently due to an ongoing legal shemozzle between Pippa Middleton and Icon Books, the publishers of “When One is Expecting: A Posh Person’s Guide to Pregnancy and Parenting”, authored by “the creators of @Pippatips (Mat Morrisroe and Suzanne Azzopardi, for the record).

The parody pregnancy guide is doing reasonably well on Amazon (one reviewer does describe it as “not much more than a posh version of the Top Tips section/books of Viz magazine” – which is actually high comedy praise indeed).

According to the Daily Mail, Pippa’s lawyers are pursuing the creators of this gentle joshing for “passing off” – that is, marketing the book and Twitter account as actually written by Ms Middleton – but the exact nature of the action remains unclear.

Is it possible that Pippa’s lawyers Harbottle and Lewis are threatening litigation not just for passing off, but possibly also for defamation? When questioned by Index, a spokeswoman for the firm said it was the firm’s policy “not to comment on client matters”.

A defamation case seems unlikely, but it’s not unknown for lawyers to raise the idea in order to strike the fear of God into publishers.

In 2010, at the height of the MPs expenses scandal, the Barclay Brothers, owners of the Telegraph newspapers, threatened to sue Private Eye magazine for a joke about the brothers’ tax status.

Private Eye said that this was their first ever libel threat for a joke. But has the magazine famous for its spoof columns by politicians, hacks and celebs ever faced action for “passing off”? “The answer is no” came the simple reply from editor Ian Hislop when Index inquired.

The most infamous “passing off” case of recent years was that of Conservative politician and diarist Alan Clarke versus the Evening Standard, in 1998. The Standard ran a spoof column headlined The Secret Diary of Alan Clarke. Clarke took umbrage, and in spite of the fact that the column was obviously a joke (along the lines of the Guardian’s Samantha Cameron spoof column Mrs Cameron’s Diary), Clarke won his court case, with the judge absurdly ruling that because the paper was largely read by commuters who wouldn’t really be paying attention as they fought to defend their space on the evening train home, it was possible that people would think the articles were genuine.

It seems clear that the PippaTips account and book are parodies: even the Twitter bio states “clearly a parody”, and the book does not make any claim to be written by Middleton herself.

Does Middleton have a case to make then? According to the Intellectual Property Office, “passing off” cases hinge on whether:

• you have established a reputation in  your mark;

• the use you are complaining of  would be likely to confuse or deceive the public; and

• the use would be likely to damage your business and goodwill.

These matters are up for debate. Publishing lawyer Bernie Nyman says that he can see no evidence that Pippa Middleton has trademarked her name.

Are the public likely to be confused or deceived? Unlikely. As we’ve seen, there is no claim that the book is authored by Pippa Middleton, and the twitter account is marked as parody. Twitter’s own rules say that “You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others”.

If the account had done so, then it is likely it would be suspended by Twitter, and yet it remains.

Nyman says he thinks the account authors have “done enough to give themselves an arguable case that it’s not passing off.”

Furthermore, says Nyman, “there is no question of copyright infringement, as far as I’m aware.”

As to the question of whether Middleton is likely to damage Middleton’s business or goodwill, a recent study on online parody and satire suggests that the opposite is true.

Evaluating The Impact of Parody, commissioned by the Intellectual Property Office, and led by Dr Kris Erickson of Bournemouth University, found that there was no evidence that YouTube parodies caused any damage to earning potential of artists; indeed, the most parodied artists were often the most successful.

The study states: “We have evaluated two potential sources of economic harm – substitution and reputational effects – finding no compelling evidence that parody is damaging to the original in terms of the latter’s ability to attract and monetise an audience via the online platform.”

In fact, the study suggests that “enabling user-generated content such as parody could have positive economic benefits for the UK. Instead of an economic justification for limiting parody content, we find compelling reasons to promote the creation of more parody content based on UK works.”

And this is not just the case for YouTube: the researchers suggest that while further work may need to be carried out on “TV, print, photography and interactive games”, they hope the insight can be “drawn and applied to other markets.”

Britain currently does not have an exemption for parody in copyright law, despite the fact that the European Union’s directive on copyright does allow for such an exemption. The IPO is suggesting that the UK does just that. Vince Cable announced late in 2012 that there was a possibility this could happen, and the IPO has now come up with drafting of amendments to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which would specifically protect fair usage of other artists’ material in parody – whether that be “weapon parody” – parody used to make a point, or “target parody” often directed at the original artist.

In a statement, the IPO told Index:

“Government has announced its intention to introduce a new copyright exception to allow certain acts of parody, caricature and pastiche, and has published draft legislation to this effect. Once finalised the changes will form part of a package of provisions to be laid before Parliament later in the year.”

All this, though, pertains to parodies where original material has been copied but altered for parodic purposes: Downfall videos, for example, or one of the hundreds of versions of Adele’s Rolling In The Deep marked as “parody” on YouTube.

But the people behind @pippatips did not actually use anything but their own material, in a pastiche of the style and tone of Middleton’s book.

In a recent LRB article, novelist Jonathan Coe suggested that the prevalence of satire was in fact neutering British political and cultural life, sending the country, as Peter Cook put it, “giggling into the sea”. But even with the proposed reforms to copyright laws governing parody, satire is still clearly seen as a threat by the UK establishment.

In 2011, Britons were surprised to discover that film footage of parliamentary debates is not allowed to be used for satirical purposes. This information arose after an episode of the US political satire programme The Daily Show was pulled from UK television because it contained footage from a parliamentary debate on the phone hacking scandal. As the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis pointed out , “Americans can make fun of what happens in our parliament but we can’t”.

And while Private Eye may only ever have had one libel threat over a joke, Eye journalist and author of the magazine’s official history Adam McQueen says that “people have written letters to editor over the years making it clear that they aren’t really like what was said about them in the jokes section.”

Satire, pastiche and parody are widely held to be part of what makes Britain great. But it seems not everyone is willing to exercise their right to laugh and be laughed at.

Padraig Reidy is senior writer at Index on Censorship. @mePadraigReidy