Fair Use of the Week: Obama, Son of Strelka, and a New Genesis – by “Aditya K”

Barack Obama’s voice is something else. It’s calming; it’s soothing; and it’s powerful. Dan Warren was listening to Obama’s 2005 audiobook Dreams From My Father when inspiration struck him: What if he utilized Obama’s “grandiose, epic language” and taletelling timbre to create his own story?

And thus, Son of Strelka, Son of God was born. The story—a creation myth like no other—tells the story of Stanley, the son of the creator. Stanley travels far and wide, his tale narrated seamlessly by our very own POTUS.

(Animation done by Ainsley Seago. Story and music by Dan Warren.)

I recently stumbled upon this amazing work via an article on Slate Magazine’s website. A major question surrounding this new piece was whether or not it infringed on the copyrights of the audiobook it drew from. The article’s author, David Weigel, mentions that artist Dan Warren did not worry too much about the legality of the remix:

If there was any question about fair use, he had an answer. “It could be seen as commentary on Obama’s story,” he explains. “People did think he was going to remake the world. I thought he was going to remake the world! Although maybe in less dramatic terms than in this story.”

When Warren first released his creation on the Something Awful forums, he stated: “It’s almost certainly fair use, but that doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be legal hassles if I tried to sell it.” In our latest installment of Fair Use of the Week, we’ll explore exactly how and why Son of Strelka, Son of God qualifies for fair use protection.

Fair Use Analysis
As we’ve done in past Fair Use of the Weeks, I’ll don my faux judicial robes and analyze the four factors that help determine whether or not Son of Strelka, Son of God is a fair use of copyrighted works. If these factors, laid out in §107 of the Copyright Act, weigh in favor of fair use, then Dan Warren is not liable for copyright infringement.

Factor 1: The purpose and character of the use. This factor centers on the idea of how transformative the new work is. A transformative work, generally defined as having new expression or meaning, is protected by fair use.

Son of Strelka, Son of God consists of segments of Barack Obama’s audiobooks spliced together to give a whole new meaning. Warren rearranged Obama’s words and phrases over original musical tracks to create a novel myth. This repurposing of the audiobook’s recording should be enough to mark Son of Strelka as transformative; however, Warren poses a further argument. As he mentioned in his Slate interview, the new artistic meaning could be a commentary on the public’s conviction that Obama was going to remake the world. By presenting Obama as a storyteller of a new Genesis, Warren is doing just that.

Another aspect of this first factor regards the commercial nature of the use. Son of Strelka, Son of God is available for free online. (Warren himself figured that selling his work would probably bring more legal troubles.) Releasing his work for free strengthens the argument that his work was a good faith fair use of a copyrighted work for the sake of commentary.

Factor 2: The nature of the copyrighted work. The second factor pertains to the copyrighted work that was sampled from or reappropriated. In this case, the work is Barack Obama’s audiobook, Dreams From My Father. Though the audiobook itself is a derivative work based on a preexisting work—Obama’s original book—Section 106 of the Copyright Act gives the copyright owner exclusive rights “to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work.” Section 103 guarantees this new work, however, its own independent copyright. Son of Strelka probably is transformative enough to not violate the original book’s copyrights—portions of text were jumbled together out of context—so the question of fair use centers on the recorded portion of the audiobook. Regardless, both the audiobook and the original text are copyrighted, widely published, and sold, so this factor weighs against fair use.

Factor 3: The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole. The idea behind this factor is somewhat logical: the more of a copyrighted work you use, the less of a chance it is a fair use. This is especially true when the bulk of the use is unchanged or verbatim.

With Son of Strelka, Son of God, lines of Obama’s audiobook were taken out of order and spliced together into a new context. In total, the new story is 32 minutes long, but a relatively small percentage of the original work was used—in total. Only a few sentences, if not a few words, were used at a time, and Warren’s finite use was enough to create a truly transformative work. I believe this limited use allows for the third factor to fall in favor of fair use.

Factor 4: The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work. This factor tests whether the use of the copyrighted work has an appreciable effect on the original work’s market. Essentially, if the fair use competes directly with the original work, it is harder to make an argument for fair use; if the new work complements the copyrighted original, fair use becomes a more viable argument.

Son of Strelka, Son of God does not appear to harm the potential market for Barack Obama’s audiobook, Dreams From My Father. This is not because Son of Strelka is noncommercial; just because something is free does not mean it wouldn’t harm the original’s market. Both works are audiobooks, so there is a potential market substitution. However, the nature of Barack Obama’s work—a nonfictional narrative performed by the current President of the United States—is quite different from the nature of Son of Strelka—a fictional, mythical tale. A simple factor such as difference in genre leads me to believe that market effect, in this case, is not an issue.

Another aspect of the fourth factor is whether the use hurts the potential market for derivative works. I might be wrong, but I don’t believe there is a large market for derivative works when it comes to audiobooks. Unlike musical works, audiobooks are rarely sampled or licensed. For these reasons, I believe that the fourth factor sides with fair use.

Conclusion Even though they are public figures and their actions and statements may be newsworthy, presidents are entitled to all of the protections of copyright. That being said, their public persona makes them easy targets for fair uses of their copyrighted works—parody, criticism, news reporting, and other transformative works. Presidential mashups are not new, nor will they go out of fashion any time soon. In the case of Son of Strelka, Son of God, Dan Warren is completely justified in his assertion that his use of Barack Obama’s voice is fair and allowed according to the law.

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