Breach Boys and California Gurls

Here’s today’s entry in the IP Overreaching Hall of Shame. According to the New York Post:

Reps for the Beach Boys are threatening to sue Katy Perry after she included their classic line “I wish they all could be California Girls,” in her song “California Gurls.” Rondor Music has fired off a letter to Perry’s label, Capitol Records, demanding Mike Love and Brian Wilson — who penned the 1965 classic “California Girls” — be given a writing credit on Perry’s hit summer song, as well as royalties.

If you have somehow avoided hearing Perry’s ubiquitous hit this summer, which gives new meaning to the phrase “cotton candy pop song,” you can watch the video here (warning: Auto-Tune ahead). The supposed claim is based entirely on Snoop Dogg’s rapped coda to the song, similar (but not identical) to the iconic Beach Boys refrain. (Snoop actually says, “I really wish you all could be California girls.”)

Later reports today, such as this Daily News piece, clarify that Rondor has not exactly threatened suit — though it appears the label still hopes to pressure Perry’s record company into giving them a cut of the royalties. More outrageously, Rondor’s clarifying statement still seeks to hold the moral and legal high ground:

Using the words or melody in a new song taken from an original work is not appropriate under any circumstances, particularly one as well-known and iconic as ‘California Girls.’ Rondor Music…is committed to protecting the rights of its artists and songwriters, and with the support of the writers, that is exactly what we are doing.

What a nerve! This is so obviously a de minimis use, and a fair use, that any legal claim is groundless. The quotation of one line is not infringement. And this bald-faced statement condemning any such use “in any circumstances” earns extra Hall of Shame opprobrium. (If it really were unlawful to refer briefly to iconic lines from past hits in this way, what would have happened to jazz musicians’ many winking tributes to classics like “How High the Moon” — or to just about the entirety of the blues?)

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