Spotlight On: Radiohead’s Burn The Witch Video


Copyright Symbol

  • Radiohead has resurfaced in the news this week in another music copyright claim. But this one has a bit of a twist: instead of claiming copyright infringement in the music itself, this claim is based on the style of the music video for Burn The Witch; a track from their new album A Moon Shaped Pool:
  • The video strongly echoes the animation style of 1960s children’s show Trumpton; a plasticine animation series telling the story of a small town and its people. One episode, for example, is Mrs Cobbit and the Ice Cream Man. The show is well known to its generation, and the style is quite distinctive:
  • But the song itself is no children’s tale: it talks about the ordeals and witch hunts of the 17th century.  Clearly upset by that association, creator of Trumpton, Gordon Murray, has taken issue with the video, claiming it’s a clear case of copyright infringement.  His son-in-law told The Daily Mail: “Radiohead should have sought our consent as we consider this a tarnishing of the brand. It is not something we would have authorised. We consider that there is a breach of copyright and we are deciding what to do next.”
  • But the case actually isn’t so clear cut. Radiohead has certainly created a video in the style of Trumpton, but there’s no copyright in style alone. The new video uses its own characters, costumes, and settings, and uses the homage to make its point.  It is plasticine animation and certainly there is stylistic overlap – like the exaggerated way characters nod their heads to each other. But can you copyright nodding?
  • Murray will need to show some concrete examples of copying, not just general style, if he is to win his case. Without that, copyright law probably isn’t the solution to his problem.
  • Even if he is wrong, turning to the law is understandable – he is proud of his creation, and nobody would want that associated with some of history’s darkest moments. The infamous Salem Witch Trials, for example, have left a centuries-old scar on American history.
  • This is actually a fairly common situation, and highlights some misconceptions about what IP (intellectual property) is and is not. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the law protects, and what it doesn’t. It’s important for artists, designers and all the creative industries to understand their IP  and what they can do with it. That’s their livelihood!

Guest post by Tristan Sherliker, Associate, EIP.


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