Transformative Reinterpretation or Total Rip-off?: Namie Amuro and Copy That

At what point is copying

  • homage (as a way of honoring and being respectful of the original)  even through direct copying?
  • transformative (in the traditional copyright sense) as building upon the original to create new meaning?
  • or copying as a means of economically exploiting copyrighted works?

This first post in a series about the difficulties in making this distinction focuses on three different examples of how difficult it is to carefully draw these lines, focusing on Japanese pop star Namie Amuro’s Copy That (official Vidal Sassoon music video-ish commercial above), and later posts will focus on Glee’s Madonna and Lady Gaga episodes, and Christina Aguilera’s Not Myself Tonight video (and dance responses), and other similar situations.

Namie Amuro — Copy That

So starting with Namie Amuro and Copy That — the video linked above, the lyrics exclaim “Copy That!” in English, while showing fashions that exemplify different regions. Leaving aside the overall meaning of the Japanese lyrics, the commercial message is to copy both Namie’s fashion sense — and her use of Vidal Sassoon products.

This “copy that” message continues from her three previous American r-and-b evocative singles, packaged as “60s 70s 80s” – all sampling large sections of a song from one of those decades — the Supremes’ “Baby Love”, Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and Irene Cara’s “What A Feeling”.

What is quite interesting is when and where credit is given to those that have been copied — I’ll assume that for the fashions in “Copy That”, there were no actual consultants from those regions; however, for each of the 60s 70s 80s videos, they are specifically titled as “collaboration videos” (in English) and specifically references the costume designer — Patricia Field (best known for Sex and the City).

So what part of Namie’s performance and image is homage to the past and other cultures? And what part is transformative? A strong argument can be made that she is honoring the past, through building upon it,  through directly copying both music and fashion. (As Susan Scafidi blogs about at Counterfeit Chic, the copyright protection for fashion is minimal to nonexistent).The copied portion that is recognized as copyright and is economically exploited (and paid for) are the samples that cleared and paid for.

But even though Namie repeats (and has literally) copied that, the physical CD for her latest album extols users not to copy the CD — and only in English (despite the fact that the CD has only been released in Japan).

(And yes, the title for these series of posts is taken from the headline of a N.Y. Times article about the Koons puppy sculpture case. I’m claiming fair use!)

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