Is Judge Judy calling you? A media giant wants to know
By Steve Irsay
(Court TV) -- You pick up the phone and the unmistakable rasp of TV's Judge Judy crackles over the line.
"Good afternoon. Tell me your name," the acid-tongued arbiter says.
When you don't respond, she becomes impatient. "Hello?!" And then, "Do you take any prescribed medications, sir?"
"Why don't you pay attention?" she snaps. "I eat morons like you for breakfast."
Welcome to the world of "soundboards" — online audio samples that have propelled the time-honored tradition of prank calling into the Internet age.
Hundreds of clips from the likes of Judge Judy to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Homer Simpson are a click away on sites like eBaumsworld.com. The site contains some two dozen celebrity soundboards and a collection of calls made using them, along with a varied collection of photos, jokes and links. EBaumsworld.com bills itself as "a hilarious collection of media for the masses."
But according to one media giant, it's not.
Viacom threatened the site with a lawsuit if clips of Judge Judy, Dr. Phil, Howard Stern and Tim Meadows are not removed. That was last November. The judge, the doc, the shock jock and the Saturday Night Live funnyman are still available for all your prank-calling needs.
"Right now we are calling their bluff," said Neil Bauman, vice president of the site and father of its creator Eric "eBaum" Bauman. "This is a 23-year-old kid operating a Web site out of his father's house. We want to see if big bad Viacom can shut him down."
Neil Bauman says he expects to get a summons any day. According to a Viacom spokesperson, both sides are simply still "in conversation."
"When we see that our copyrights are being infringed we want to do something about it," the spokesperson said. "We are a media company and that is what our whole business is about. We don't want to see our copyrights diluted."
If this David and Goliath battle over cyberspeech materializes it will be the latest in the struggle between billion-dollar corporations and bedroom Webmasters over the use of highly accessible materials. Poking fun at celebrities and corporations using protected material has long been the low-risk business of homemade fanzines generally distributed far below the radar of corporate lawyers. But the Web has changed that.
"Before the Internet, people doing parodies did not have a kind of global reach," said Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties watchdog group. "We are seeing these legal issues more and more because when you are on the Internet you are awfully easy to find."
Viacom was not the first company to find eBaumsworld.com less than amusing. In September of last year lawyers for the makers of Corona Extra beer sent Eric Bauman a letter to discuss the unauthorized use of the beer's trademark.
"It was material that was passed around on the Internet for five years," said Eric Bauman. "It was a dancing beer bottle. It's funny, and its still on there."
Lawyers for the beer, who called the site "very cute" in their informal letter to Bauman, reached an undisclosed agreement allowing him to use the graphic without facing further legal action.
"It was an example of ask and you shall receive," said Joseph Yanny, a lawyer who represents Corona. "Litigation is a form of war and nobody really wins in war. Someone just loses less than someone else."
A week after the Corona letter, Bauman got word from lawyers representing child-favorite Mister Rogers. They did not think audio clips of their client belonged in Bauman's neighborhood and asked that they be removed under threat of a lawsuit.
"I had clips from his show and they sounded perverted," said Eric Bauman. "They were funny, but I decided that they were too mean-spirited and I took them down."
Although Bauman is standing up to Viacom for now, many other small-time Webmasters have been quick to fold in the face of cease-and-desist orders from corporations threatening to sue.
Since the mid-1990s the proliferation of unauthorized Web sites has been met with a growing corporate crackdown, said von Lohmann. And parodic pranksters are not the only targets. Fan sites have also felt the legal wrath.
Five years ago, Viacom went after the notoriously devout Star Trek fans that posted scripts, pictures, sounds and original fan fiction on their Web sites. Soon, online devotees of programs like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "The Simpsons" and even cult cooking smash "Iron Chef" were getting similar letters from miffed corporate attorneys.
Most of the skirmishes ended in a Webmaster either modifying a site or taking it down to avoid costly legal battles. In court, eBaumsworld.com may have a chance on some points, according to von Lohmann.
"Its hard to see how copyright issues would protect such short snippets," he said, noting that other brief references like titles and phrases are usually not protected. In any case, the length of the clip might not matter as much as the way the clip is used.
And if the hundreds of clips on the site are found to violate copyright laws, eBaumsworld.com stands to lose a ton of money.
"Damages can be up to $150,000 per work," said von Lohmann. "If anything on the site is copyrightable the damages can quickly reach the moon."
Parody or satire?
Regardless of who's laughing at eBaum's antics and who's not, the fate of the site may rest on who a court determines the joke to be on.
The law makes a distinction between parody, which uses copyrightable material to make fun of the material itself, and satire, which uses the material to poke fun at something else.
"If you are using the thing to make fun of itself, the person who owns it probably won't license it to you," explained von Lohmann. "So the First Amendment steps in to let you use it."
The copyright exemption for parody, which could protect eBaumsworld.com, was strengthened by a 1994 Supreme Court ruling that rap group 2 Live Crew's parody of Roy Orbison's song "Pretty Woman" was protected speech.
Viacom goes beyond copyright and trademark allegations, claiming violations of publicity and privacy rights. These are typically invoked to protect celebrities from unauthorized use of their names and likenesses — including voices — for commercial purposes.
But the site is hardly commercial, claims eBaumsworld.
"If we were marketing Judge Judy posters, if we were marketing Howard Stern CDs then that would be a misuse of fair trade," said Neil Bauman.
The recently incorporated site makes the equivalent of about $2 an hour, Bauman said. The site's advertisers include a small clothing company and a men's Web portal.
As for the celebrities themselves, the reactions have been mixed. According to Bauman, Judge Judy, whose real name is Judith Sheindlin, is particularly peeved at the use of her acerbic quips on his son's site. But Howard Stern didn't mind a bit and featured eBaumsworld on his radio show.
Does it matter what they think?
"The celebrities are not the ones in charge," said von Lohmann. "They don't actually own themselves. All of their fame is actually owned by some large entertainment company."
If a lawsuit does come, Neil Bauman is realistic about his chances against Viacom.
"Even if we win, at that point they'd appeal and drain us dry," he said. "Financially, obviously we don't stand a chance."
The site's legal defense "war chest" of about $1,000, culled from fan donations, has already been drained by legal consultation fees.