TOPEKA, Kan. — A church known nationally for picketing soldiers’ funerals is being accused by a music company of violating copyright laws with an Internet video parody of the 1980s song, “We Are the World.”
But an attorney for Westboro Baptist Church said May 17 that the parody, “God Hates the World,” is protected under First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and religious expression. She said the church intends to keep the video posted on its Web site.
It’s the latest incident bringing attention to Westboro Baptist and its pastor, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., and their ongoing campaign against homosexuality. On its Web site, Fox News described the song parody as a “new outrage.”
The church argues that soldiers’ deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are God’s punishment for the U.S. tolerating homosexuality. The video parody says that “God hates the world and all her people” because of their wickedness.
“It’s all our religious doctrine,” said Shirley Phelps-Roper, church attorney and daughter of the pastor. “It’s our religious preachment. It’s all our effort to deliver a faithful message to this generation.”
But Warner/Chappel Music Inc. in Los Angeles views the video as infringing on the copyright it administers for “We Are the World.” The song raised money for famine relief that led to a video featuring some of American music’s biggest stars, including Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen.
“According to our records, no request has been made to use the Composition, no authorization has been granted nor has any license been issued for the use of the Composition on the Web site,” Kelly Isenberg, the company’s director of legal and business affairs wrote in a May 8 letter to the church.
Her letter demanded that the church stop using the parodied song “in any manner” and issue a statement under oath that the song “will not be exploited in any manner whatsoever” without prior written permission.
Isenberg wasn’t available for comment in her Los Angeles office and didn’t return a telephone message from the Associated Press.
The parody follows the “We Are the World” video’s format of showing a group of singers — Westboro Baptist members — in front of a microphone. The rewritten lyrics include: “You are all a part of the devil’s family and the truth, you’re all headed straight to hell!”
“The visual imagery was as important as the sound,” Phelps-Roper said. “We thought, ‘You can’t do this parody without having the visual element.’”
During their pickets, Westboro Baptist members often sing parodies of patriotic, military or popular songs. For example, to the tune of “America the Beautiful,” they sing their own lyrics, “Wicked Land of Sodomites.”
In a reply to Isenberg’s letter, dated May 17, the church’s pastor cited court decisions from 1980, 1994 and 2002 in arguing that the parody isn’t subject to copyright laws. Phelps-Roper said the parody would be protected even if the church was trying to sell its video, which it isn’t.
“It’s lame. All of it’s lame,” she said of the music company’s arguments. “They know perfectly well that we have proper parody. They don’t like the words.”
Westboro Baptist’s picketing of soldiers’ funerals led Congress and at least 34 states, including Kansas, to enact laws attempting to restrict such protests.