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GoldieBlox Wants to Teach Our Daughters to Be Engineers. Can We Teach Them to Respect Art, Too?

Goldieblox's Mixed Messages

Remember a week ago, when everyone was freaking about that cool video marketing engineering-based toys to girls? Things were so simple then. Now the discussion has turned from the Silicon Valley-based company GoldieBlox’s feminist message to their use, fair or otherwise, of a copyrighted song. When I first saw the video, I, like most people I know, was taken not only with its message but with its girl-friendly rewrite of the Beastie Boys’ less-than-girl-friendly “Girls.” How cool, I thought, for the Beasties to license a song they’d long since disavowed, retroactively bringing it in line with the late Adam Yauch’s earth-shattering “Sure Shot” verse.

Except, as it turns out, GoldieBlox didn’t license the song. Didn’t ask, in fact, and when the Beasties reached out to say “What’s up,” they sued them.

Let’s be clear: Although the Beasties’ open letter says they “simply ask[ed] how and why our song ‘Girls’ had been used in your ad without our permission,” the chances that they and not their lawyers were doing the asking is virtually nil. But the disingenuousness cuts both ways. In their filing for injunctive relief — basically asking a court to preemptively rule against the copyright claims the Beastie Boys and their record label have yet to actually make — the company accused the Beasties of “lashing out” against the video and having “threatened GoldieBlox with copyright infringement,” despite the fact that no papers have been filed to that effect. Although it’s common for legal documents to include language that goes beyond the strict scope of the law, GoldieBlox’s references to “the Beastie Boys’ highly sexist song ‘Girls'” and their tradition of “has present[ing] strong and smart depictions of girls pursuing so-called ‘nontraditional’ activities” seem more like salvos in the P.R. war.

Several lawyers I talked to agree with Julie Ahrens, the director of Copyright & Fair Use at Stanford’s Center for Internet & Society, that GoldieBlox has a strong legal claim. But, as Felix Salmon argues in an article for Reuters, the way they’ve asserted it has less to do with feminist ideology and more to do with a cultivated sense of entitlement.

Under what Paul Carrhas diagnosed as the rules of the Cult of Disruption, GoldieBlox neither sought nor received permission to create these videos: it never licensed the music it used from the artists who wrote it. That wouldn’t be the Silicon Valley way. First you make your own rules — and then, if anybody tries to slap you down, you don’t apologize, you fight. For your right. To Parody.

At Slate, Katy Waldman argues that GoldieBlox’s high-handed approach may cost them much of the goodwill the original video generated, and has resulted in turning energy from their unassailable message to their much more questionable products.

But beyond the legal debate and the quality of GoldieBlox’s actual product, there’s another issue at play, one that as a critic and the father of a four-year-old girl is very much on my mind. It’s beyond essential that my daughter grow up knowing that she can make her mark on any field she chooses, whether it’s designing shoes or software. (Given her aptitude with Magna-Tiles, I’m thinking architecture.) But as a parent raising a child in the digital age, it’s essential for me to communicate to her that works of art have value, and that just because you can take something for free doesn’t mean you should. 

It was, as it turns out, a pioneering female computer programmer who coined the digital-culture maxim “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” But that principle is a lot less charming, and a lot more toxic, when it’s put into action by a well-capitalized tech company with a fleet of lawyers at its disposal and a CMO who’s claimed that “viral video is the new SEO.” From one perspective — the one GoldieBlox would prefer you adopt — this is the story of a progressive company subverting sexist culture to sell a positive message. But from another, it’s the story of a little-known company exploiting artists’ work — and, unmistakably, the legal battle they planned for in advance — to sell toys. I’m raising my daughter to know better than that.

UPDATE: As of November 27, GoldieBlox has re-uploaded the video with a new Beasties-less soundtrack. An open letter on their site explains: “We don’t want to spend our time fighting legal battles. We want to inspire the next generation. We want to be good role models. And we want to be your friends.” 

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