Payday lender Wonga has forced Twitter to take down a user's parody advert by making a copyright claim. User @Brandy_Snap created the parody based on satirical arist William Hogarth's 1732 painting of a spendthrift held in a debtor's prison. @Brandy_Snap's parody superimposes the face of Earl, Wonga's "marketing character", on top of Hogarth's unfortunate debtor. It adds the words: "Fed up of final demands, whining relatives and debtors' prison?" and reproduces the Wonga logo with the added strapline: "Your soul is ours."
Twitter removed @Brandy_Snap's image from their tweet after Wonga's copyright complaint to Twitter which claims:
Earl's face has been doctored onto a painting in the tweet found at the URL above. Unauthorised use of all or a substantial part of a copyright work is an infringing act. The "wonga.com" trade mark device (blue stylised speech bubble with the words "wonga.com" in white) has been reproduced without consent. Unauthorised use of all or a substantial part of a copyright work (which the copyright owner asserts in addition to its trade mark rights) is an infringing act.
The United States Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) gives copyright holders the power to ask online publishers and web hosting providers such as Twitter to remove what they consider to be infringing material. In return, publishers are protected from legal action as long as they comply promptly with takedown requests.
Wonga's ham-fisted attempt to censor criticism of its expensive loans has drawn more attention to the parody than it might otherwise have received -- a classic example of the Streisand effect in action. But is Wonga even on legally safe ground to suppress this kind of work?
US copyright law allows people to use copyrighted works without the owner's permission under its fair use principles. The law neither prohibits nor permits all parodies. In practice, US courts have been sympathetic to people using copyrighted work to criticise the owner or to make broader political or social commentary. In 2001, the US Court of Appeals found that The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, a parody of Gone With the Wind told from the perspective of plantation slaves, was within its fair use rights to appropriate the original novel's characters and setting. The appeals court dismissed an order granted to the original novel's publisher which prevented further publication of the parody. @Brandy_Snap's Wonga parody is essentially similar. It is created for the purpose of criticism and tackles a topic of substantial public interest -- predatory lending. Equally importantly, it doesn't create or exploit a commercial market for Wonga parodies which Wonga itself might otherwise want to profit from. @Brandy_Snap has reasonable grounds to ask Twitter to reverse its decision and restore their parody image to the site.
UK copyright law is currently being updated to help protect a vital and vibrant right to parody, criticism and debate. Meanwhile, the Pirate Party UK is glad to republish @Brandy_Snap's parody Wonga advert here under fair use principles, without advance permission, for the purpose of reporting, and for criticism and commentary about internet censorship.