Why Isn’t Parody Considered Plagiarism?

Creatives, including writers, filmmakers, musicians and visual artists, often make use of parody and satire to either make a joke or to make a point about the world around them.

Though these works will often use significant portions of the works they are pulling from, attribution, if present at all, isn’t front and center. However, allegations of plagiarism rarely arise from such works. In fact, parody enjoys broad protection under U.S. copyright law, which permits extensive use of original material without permission for the purpose of parody.

The reason for this special treatment is pretty clear, however, we first have to look at what parody and satire is to understand why the rules around plagiarism are often a bit different.

Understanding Parody and Satire

Though the terms parody and satire are often used interchangeably, there are actually key differences between them.

Satire is an artistic technique where one uses humor to make a statement of some sort. Parody is a kind of satire where the artist is taking portions of an original work for comedic effect.

The Scary Movie franchise, for example, is a parody of horror movies. It uses scenes, tropes and characters from films to make fun of those movies. Dr. Strangelove, however, is a pure satire. It hopes to expose the folly of nuclear war through the use of comedy.

Some works are both parodies and satires. Weird Al Yankovic, for example, parodies songs. While many are just meant to make jokes about the song and artist, others have comedic statements about the outside world.

To be clear, the line between parody and satire is not always sharp. Generally though, if the joke involves using or imitating earlier works, it’s likely considered a parody.

So Why is Parody Not Plagiarism?

Parodies rarely cite all of their sources and, if they do, they rarely do it prominently. While there are exceptions to this rule, such as Weird Al citing all of the songs he uses in his liner notes, parody and citation generally do not go hand in hand.

But parody is rarely considered plagiarism and that is for one simple reason: The parodist expects and requires that the audience both be familiar with the original work and catch the reference.

If the audience doesn’t understand the reference or the source material, much of the joke is lost. Attribution isn’t necessary with parody because, if it is going to be considered parody, the attribution needs to be intrinsically understood by both parodist and audience.

Attribution, after all, isn’t there just to give credit to previous creators, it’s there for the purpose of the audience. With parody, the audience is (hopefully) already in on the joke and that makes more formal attribution both redundant and a distraction.

Unfortunately, academic works don’t have that type of intrinsic understanding built in. As such, students will still have to add citations to their essays, even if Scary Movie doesn’t cite the films it parodies.