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Parody Law For Writers: How To Protect Your Legal Right To Spoof

parody and satire for writersWriters who enjoy creating parody—novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, or poems—know how important it is to pay careful attention to copyright infringement. Parody is a literary style that uses elements from a well-known work to create a brand-new work—one that obviously calls to mind the original—and although this seems to be in violation of copyright law, parodies and spoofs are protected by law as long as they adhere to certain rules.

Suppose you’ve written a poem that brings to mind the work of Edgar Allan Poe in a mocking sort of way, and you’re worried about fair use. If your poem is an original creation—based broadly on the style of Poe’s work—your parody should be protected. You may legally write a parody of Little House on the Prairie, perhaps titled Little Mouse on the Ferry, but you may not publish (and sell) a spinoff of the original. In other words, you can’t legally write a continuation of the last book of the series featuring Laura Ingalls Wilder, et al.

What is a parody?

In literary terms, a parody is a form of satire that imitates the characteristic style of another author or work in an exaggerated fashion for comic effect. The aim is to criticize or mock the original work in a humorous way.

What is fair use?

Fair use is a US Copyright Act provision that allows certain types of use of a copyrighted work. Parody is considered fair use when it is an entirely new and original work that imitates another work in order to ridicule or criticize it. But the parody must use only enough of the original work to “call to mind” the parodied work in order to be considered fair use.

What’s the difference between a parody and a satire?

Satire is a literary technique of writing that ridicules its subject (people, institutions, society in general), and its intention is not so much entertainment as making a political or social statement. Satire uses recognizable elements from an original work to make fun of something else. It does not necessarily have to be humorous, and, in fact, satires are often tragic. If the satire is humorous, it tends to be subtle, with liberal doses of irony and deadpan humor.

In the courts, parody and satire are separate elements. The parody must fall under acceptable fair use provisions to avoid copyright infringement, and it must be an original, new work that can stand alone. Satire does not necessarily involve a substantial change to the original subjects (people, institutions, etc.).

What’s the difference between parody and fan fiction?

Fan fiction is different from parody as the author tries to stay true to the original work and copies necessary elements of the original. Most fan fiction writers do not try to sell their work and generally share it freely over the Internet. A Harry Potter fan may want to create new stories as a spinoff of the original novels, and as long as the writer doesn’t try to sell or profit from the work, it is protected by copyright law. 

Learn more: Fan Fiction: Should You List Fan Fiction Awards And Publications In Your Writing Bio?

How do I protect my parody?

Pay careful attention to the characters and scenes you create in your parody to be sure they are original, and make sure your wording and descriptions are your own. Remember, a parody should “bring to mind” the original, not copy it.

NOTE: Writer’s Relief is an author’s submission service. We help writers by managing their submissions to literary agents and editors. We offer our writers information about legal and copyright issues, but we do not offer legal advice. Consult a lawyer if you have concerns about the legality of your parody.

QUESTION: Have you ever written a parody? What current event would you like to see lampooned?

15 Responses to Parody Law For Writers: How To Protect Your Legal Right To Spoof

  1. Can I write a parody that is entirely my own work, but use the names of familiar fictional characters? Or must I change them as in the example of Little Mouse on the Ferry?

  2. What you say is absolutely true! However, the article meant to convey that, as a writer, you cannot simply rewrite an Edgar Allen Poe poem/story and have it published as your own work. By parodying it—that is, by writing your own, original work that merely brings to mind the idea of Edgar Allen Poe’s work—you would be able to publish a poem resembling him without risking legal ramifications.

  3. “Suppose you’ve written a poem that brings to mind the work of Edgar Allan Poe in a mocking sort of way, and you’re worried about fair use.”
    The above situation would never arise.Edgar Allan Poe’s been dead since 1849, meaning all of his works are in the Public Domain. So copy away! Just make sure to give Poe credit if you use any of his stuff verbatim. While copying his stuff won’t get you into any trouble, plagiarising it might.

  4. I always thought the difference was at the discretion of comedy, or whatever the author (or lawyer) of the original work finds humorous. The trouble I see is where comical parody intersects with libelous mockery–obvious disdain for an original work or product.

  5. The thing I’m curious about now is when satire crosses the line into libel. I currently work with satire in my webcomic (linked).

    And thank-you for this article.

  6. I was so delighted to find your recent article on Parody today!
    It was the Best!
    For the past few years I’ve been drawn to writing poetry parodies; mostly silly, some serious. I didn’t even know if it were still being done, or if they were allowed to be printed…
    I’ve written different satires in my time. Parody gives me a chance to ‘speak back’ to poems already in print, esp from old-time authors; and to better understand poetry metre, etc. Thanks for all the help you offer us.
    ~Wandering Willy

  7. I didn’t realize the difference between satire and parody. I do write a lot of parodies, but I place it under the satire column. I need to change that quickly, because most of my stuff is just for laughs and giggles.

  8. I attempted a satire a years ago (it was published in a good mag, but I wasn’t crazy in love with how the story came out).

    My satire drew parallels between LARPing (live action role playing) and politics. It was really fun to write, but like I said, I don’t feel it was my strongest work.

    I think that it takes a very particular kind of writer to be able to “do” satire and parody well–a certain keen eye, sharp voice, and wit.

    For me, the best parodies often revere in a humerous way the very things that they are parodying. Satires are more cutting and brutal.

    I love them but find the my strengths as a writer are elsewhere.

  9. I appreciate the way you clarified Parody. Being a poet, I am embarassed to say that I didn’t know what it meant.

  10. Parody, satire – they tend to be fringe genres but it’s good to know the ground rules which are what this write-up provide.Good information.

  11. Thanks for making this more clear, especially the difference between parody and satire… I always have to look that up!

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