Skip to main content

Boys Against Girls: The Beastie Boys Fight for Their Rights by Suing GoldieBlox

This legal fight has always acted as the perfect embodiment of the battle between millennials and Gen X, with those who've grown up believing that every kind of intellectual property -- especially media -- is fair use, there for the taking with a keystroke, pitted against artistic and cultural icons of the generation that came before them. Now it looks like the fight isn't over: the Beastie Boys aren't letting it go and are countersuing the company that used their music without getting permission.
Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 11.13.15 PM

I have a 5-year-old daughter which means that I'm acutely aware of the insidious influence of Disney and its princesses. My kid craves all things princesses with the ravenous appetite of a great white jumping out of the water to attack a sea lion. But she's a smart little girl and her tastes and aspirations aren't confined to glass slippers and shocking pinks; at an early age she's already all about learning, creating, and figuring out ways to eventually take over the world. As much as possible, I encourage this in her, making it clear that she should never limit herself, which is why at first blush I liked the idea of a line of toys aimed at breaking the stranglehold the princess trope has on young girls' imaginations. But when San Francisco-based company GoldieBlox decided it would be okay to jack the Beastie Boys' classic track Girls without the group's permission, then turn around and preemptively and aggressively sue them to be able to use the song in its advertising, as a lifelong fan of the Beasties I was furious.

You all know what followed: GoldieBlox publicly and petulantly attacked the song they'd stolen, calling it "highly sexist," and therefore, they argued, open to parody by the company as fair use. The Beastie Boys made it clear that while they admired the stated goal of GoldieBlox in empowering young girls, the late Adam Yauch -- MCA -- had specifically stated in his will that his music should never be used for advertising. And that was the problem: the adjusted song may have been a parody but it wasn't a parody for its own sake -- it was a parody created with the intention of making money off a product unrelated to the song, and that can be a big legal no-no. Eventually, GoldieBlox backed off and issued one of the most sociopathic press releases in history, which read like it was written by a teenager and stated -- even after all the trash-talk GoldieBlox had engaged in -- that everyone at the company was a big fan of the Beasties and was crushed to learn that a small business like GoldieBlox was being targeted for responsive legal action by the Beastie Boys' lawyers. The letter was signed by the company's founder and CEO, Debbie Sterling.

The thing about Sterling is that she's been making deliberately controversial videos of questionable taste and from a place of arguable privilege for years and, like many Silicon Valley startups, her company's philosophy follows what Felix Salmon of Reuters calls "The Cult of Disruption." His take on the GoldieBlox/Beasties fight from late November is scathing, but maybe appropriately so.

He says about Sterling and Goldieblox's tactics:

The strategy here is to maximize ill-will: don’t ask permission, make no attempt to negotiate in good faith, antagonize the other party as much as possible...

If all GoldieBlox wanted to do was get out a viral message about empowering girls, they could easily have done that without gratuitously antagonizing the Beastie Boys, or putting the Beasties in their current impossible situation.

Instead, however, GoldieBlox did exactly what you’d expect an entitled and well-lawyered Silicon Valley startup to do, which is pick a fight. It’s the way of the Valley — you can’t be winning unless some household-name dinosaur is losing. (The Beasties are actually the second big name to find themselves in the GoldieBlox crosshairs; the first was Toys R Us.) The real target of the GoldieBlox lawsuit, I’m quite sure, is not the Beastie Boys. Instead, it’s the set of investors who are currently being pitched to put money into a fast-growing, Stanford-incubated, web-native, viral, aggressive, disruptive company with massive room for future growth — a company which isn’t afraid to pick fights with any big name you care to mention.

In a way, this legal fight has always acted as the perfect embodiment of the battle between millennials and Gen X, with those who've grown up believing that every kind of intellectual property -- especially media -- is fair use, there for the taking with a keystroke, pitted against artistic and cultural icons of the generation that came before them. But what Salmon is mostly hinting at is that Sterling's swiping of copyrighted material, snottily thumbing her nose at the people who created it, then turning around and making nice was all an end unto itself. The whole thing was planned from the beginning as a PR ploy to draw attention to her fledgling company. It's clever. In this case it's also wrong.

So that's why the Beastie Boys have chosen not to simply let it go. Their copyrighted work was infringed upon without their permission, and they've now decided that they're going to go ahead with legal action against GoldieBlox, suing them for "oppression, fraud, and malice." There's an argument to be made that it's a bad idea given that, from a strictly PR perspective, they're surrendering the sympathetic position of being the ones on the receiving end of needless antagonism. It could also be said that in the big picture, GoldieBlox will ultimately benefit from any kind of ongoing publicity, even bad publicity -- again, that very well could have been their intention in running the ad in the first place. But the Beasties very likely have the law on their side. And they have something else, apparently: a history of hijacking copyrighted material by Debbie Sterling's company. The new suit claims that GoldieBlox has produced a whole series of videos using misappropriated music by Daft Punk, Queen, Kaskade, and Avicii, among others.

What's going to result from all of this is almost certain to have a major impact on copyright and intellectual property law, an arm of jurisprudence that thanks to the speed of technology has always felt like it's being written quickly as it goes along. Artists have been fighting this battle for years now, understandable given that digital media has eviscerated what were once standard and reliable revenue streams for them; now more than ever they have to rely on licensing to make a living. And they can't simply roll over when their work is used without their permission in a commercial being submitted for consideration for the 2014 Super Bowl. Regardless of the legality, which will now be up for debate in court, what Debbie Sterling and GoldieBlox did was wrong. Full stop. Moreover, they did what they did knowing it was wrong. They just didn't care or they cynically calculated that the cost would be nominal compared to the benefit of so much free PR.

They may be about to find out that they were wrong twice. And it's likely going to cost them a hell of a lot of money and just as much respect. It'll be interesting to see whether the publicity can make up for all that.

While my daughter might like some of GoldieBlox's toys, I know she likes the Beastie Boys. It's ironic that by listening to them, she's indirectly getting a lesson in exactly the kind of empowerment GoldieBlox claims to want to teach her: protect what you create and know that sometimes -- you gotta fight.