As we read in Lawrence Lessig’s “Free Culture,” the law’s response to the Internet has greatly increased regulation in America. This is causing our society to move away from the guiding lights of a free culture—which encourage us to question, reinterpret, and propagate our culture by building upon the work of others—toward a permission-based culture.
To build upon or critique the culture around us one must ask, Oliver-Twist-like, for permission first. Permission is, of course, often granted—but it is not often granted to the critical or the independent.
Parody and satire are my favored tools of criticism, but they only flourish outside of approval and consent. They are not compatible with a permission-based culture. Thus, reading The Onion, which deftly uses parody and satire to highlight serious issues, can feel downright defiant after reading the Kindle TOS. The Onion is powerful because it provides an opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of our world (i.e., catharsis) while also refreshing our ability to examine sources of information – newspapers, blogs, cable news—with a more critical eye (i.e., demystification).
Once you’ve adopted The Onion paradigm, you can’t listen to a news anchor’s breathless transition from discussing some tragedy to raving about the latest winner of “American Idol” without thinking two thoughts: “That was an Onion moment” and “We deserve better from our news.”
Which brings me to my question: has The Onion run afoul of copyright/trademark laws in its crusade to misinform us?
The answer: yes, but apparently not often.
In my admittedly brief search of LexisNexis and the Web, the only hint of trouble for The Onion surfaced in an interview with former Onion editor-in-chief Robert Siegel, who revealed that “we were very nearly sued out of existence by Janet Jackson” for running a story titled: “Dying Boy Gets Wish: To Pork Janet Jackson.” Details of this drama don’t appear to be readily available.
On a related note, there are instances when The Onion has been taken too seriously, causing some trouble:
- Fred Phelps used an Onion article as proof of a gay conspiracy;
- An article about Harry Potter was widely used to support claims that the books recruit children to Satanism;
- The assistant counsel to President George W. Bush wrote a cease-and-desist letter to The Onion, asking the publication to stop using the presidential seal when lampooning the president. (“We do have a sense of humor, believe it or not,” said one Bush staffer).
Final thought: here’s my all-time favorite Onion article.