Yoko Ono loses copyright suit over use of Lennon’s Imagine

On June 2nd, the judge in the copyright infringement case Yoko Ono brought against the creators of the film “Expelled” for their use of John Lennon’s song Imagine has ruled in favor of the filmmakers based on a the “fair use” doctrine.

U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein rule that “the doctrine provides that the fair use of a copyrighted work for purposes of criticism and commentary is not an infringement of copyright.”.

You can read the judges entire decision here. Those interested in the fair use doctrine should take the time to read the judges opinion because he very thoughtfully describes and then rules on each of the criteria that make up fair use.

  • The Purpose and Character of the Use
  • The Nature of the Copyrighted Work
  • The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used in Relation to the Copyrighted Work as a Whole
  • The Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market for or Value of the Copyrighted Work
  • The judge’s decision seemed mainly to rest on a subsection of “The Purpose and Character of the Use”, namely Transformative Use. Here is the ruling.

    ii. Transformative Use
    A work is transformative if it does not “merely supersede the objects of the original
    creation” but “instead adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message.” Although transformative use “is not absolutely necessary for a finding of fair use, the goal of copyright, to promote science and the arts, is generally furthered by the creation of transformative works.” Thus, transformative works “lie at the heart of the fair use doctrine’s guarantee of breathing space within the confines of copyright.”

    There is a strong presumption that this factor favors a finding of fair use where the allegedly infringing work can be characterized as involving one of the purposes enumerated in 17 U.S.C. 107: criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching . . ., scholarship, or research.

    Defendants’ use is transformative because the movie incorporates an excerpt of “Imagine” for purposes of criticism and commentary. The filmmakers selected two lines of the song that they believe envision a world without religion: “Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.” As one of the producers of “Expelled” explains, the filmmakers paired these lyrics and the accompanying music to a sequence of images that “provide a layered criticism and commentary of the song.” The Cold War-era images of marching soldiers, followed by the image of Stalin, express the filmmakers’ view that the song’s secular utopian vision “cannot be maintained without realization in a politicized form” and that the form it will ultimately take is dictatorship. The movie thus uses the excerpt of “Imagine” to criticize what the filmmakers see as the naivety of John Lennon’s views.

    Conclusion Regarding Fair Use
    The balance of factors clearly favors a finding of fair use. Defendants’ use of “Imagine” is transformative because their purpose is to criticize the song’s message. Moreover, the amount and substantiality of the portion used is reasonable in light of defendants’ purpose. Although “Imagine,” as a creative work, is at the core of copyright protection, and defendants’ use of the song is at least partially commercial in nature, the weight of these factors against a finding of fair use is limited given that defendants’ use is transformative. Finally, plaintiffs have not shown that defendants’ use will usurp the market for licensing the song for non-transformative purposes. In sum, allowing defendants’ use would better serve “the copyright law’s goal of promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts . . . than [would] preventing it.”


    Ono’s position had been that she had the right to control use of the song by reviewing and choosing licenses. She also had the right to reject uses of the song. She brought the suit because she believe the filmmakers had “looted her of the ability to do so”.

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