Planning an April Fool’s Joke? Careful, Congress may decide you’re a criminal. (AESOP)

March 30, 2012


Congress is at it again.

April Fool’s Day is a time honored tradition, and the advent of the world-wide-web has blossomed this mischievous day into a cornucopia of fake articles, phony products, too-good-to-be-true coupons, and good old fashioned pranks. But its all in good fun, right?

Congress doesn’t think so. Apparently over the past few years, April Fool’s jokes have been getting out of hand.

Ever seen a fake advertisement for $10 iPods, or $25 Kindles? 3D iPads? – I’ve used them to trick naive roommates, but apparently fake ads like these can have a significant impact on web revenue. Major online stores like Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Apple.com have all reported a 40-70% drop in online sales on April 1st. They claim that false-advertising leads gullible customers into attempting to order products that do not exist or trying to us invalid coupons. This results in huge customer dissatisfaction (which totally swamps those poor customer service guys in India) and customers simply refusing to purchase anything online on April 1st. Apparently, the catch-phrase “Happy Don’t-Trust-the-Internet Day!” doesn’t exactly help the online market.

That sounded like a stretch to me, but then I remembered all the crazy products I’ve seen on the internet.

There’s a long history of websites like ThinkGeek.com making up bogus products for April Fool’s. One of my favorites was the Star Wars Tauntaun sleeping bag, which became so popular that they made the product for real.

You'd think I was making this up.

There’s something charming about a good April Fool’s joke like this. You get a good laugh, a warm feeling of nostalgia because Star Wars is awesome, and admit it, who wouldn’t want a Tauntaun sleeping-bag as a kid? And then the website responds to fan-demands and decides to make the product for real?! – With all this heart, I’m surprised this hasn’t been made into a Lifetime movie yet.

But other products haven’t been so innocent.

"The Other White Meat" - Remember this?

On April 1st, 2010, ThinkGeek.com posted a fake product for sale, “Canned Unicorn Meat: The New White Meat” (See their original post, here.) The ad boasted “No foolin’ – Unicorn meat is real!” and a comical history of old Unicorns who are killed and canned in Ireland. Customers who actually purchased the product got an authentic can (pictured above) and a stuffed unicorn (dismembered, of course). The post is CLEARLY a joke made for sheer entertainment value. But the catchphrase “The New White Meat” got them in trouble with a certain Pork company who was already using a similar slogan “PORK: THE OTHER WHITE MEAT.”

A month later, ThinkGeek, Inc. received a 12-page CEASE AND DESIST from Faegre & Benson, claiming that the canned Unicorn was infringing on their copyrights. You can read all about it here, and here. The idea that this was all a joke was completely lost on them. Happy “Don’t Trust The Internet” Day, indeed.

This isn’t the only example of April Fool’s Jokes going awry due to legal issues, and many have been taken down due to similar cease and desist letters. Couple these examples with the massive blow online stores (like Amazon) take every April 1st, and there was bound to be trouble.

Enter, the Government.

From the folks who brought you SOPA/PIPA, meet AESOP (Action to Eradicate and Stop Online Parodies). But unlike the wise and ancient storyteller, AESOP seems to miss the point entirely. This new bill on the block will allow companies to sue internet pranksters for infringing on their copyrighted material. – Doesn’t sound too bad at first glance, but think about that for a minute. What happens to a world when parody is no longer safe? Isn’t parody essential to our comprehension of pop-culture, politics, and the free-market? And what would the legal limits be? Could a parody about e-books be sued by Amazon because it was clearly referencing the Kindle? What if I wrote a moralistic fable exposing the evils of mega corporations, could I be sued by Wal-Mart? Or Apple?

Similar to SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), the real danger is in AESOP’s use of vague language. Writers who were previously protected under parody-laws could soon be at the mercy of billion-dollar corporations who’ve been nursing grudges for years. AESOP would allow any business to sue for causing “harm to online or store revenue” and/or “damage to public integrity through unwarranted traducement.” In plain English: ‘If we think your joke hurt our income or made us look bad, we’re coming for you.’
I’m not against Wal-Mart taking down some frat-boys who Photoshopped a coupon for $25 HDTV’s and handed them out in the University cafeteria (true story). But chasing down April Fool’s pranksters for perceived damage to their store’s income or reputation is ridiculous. Maybe people are simply too busy reading all the funny April Fool’s jokes to go out and buy a new iPad. Have you thought of that, Wal-Mart?

And what about television? – Could South Park, The Simpson’s, Saturday Night Live, and any number of parody-fueled shows be taken to court?
Movie producers often comment about how frustrating April 1st is to the film industry. If audiences hear about a (fake) movie that they really want to see, they’re less likely to spend money on real movies that are currently in theaters. Could a crappy movie like Mirror, Mirror or Wrath of the Titans blame its low box office numbers on April Fool’s posts promising Halo:The Movie and Inception 2?

"No-one saw our movie? It must be those cursed April Fool's Day pranks!"

In all seriousness, AESOP is clearly unconstitutional, if not morally reprehensible. I can’t imagine a world without the free speech of internet jokes and parody. Undoubtedly, this will be met with an incredible amount of opposition. But with the resources Wal-Mart, Amazon, Apple, etc. have to put behind this? … I’m not going to hold my breath. Finally, I find it ironic that Congress chose the name “Aesop”. Is it an intentional reference to the witty and moral Aesop’s Fables? Intentional or not, the whole thing makes me sick to my stomach. One day I’m writing a joke about George Lucas, and the next I’m just trying not to drop the soap? – Yikes.

So, be careful, April Fool’s pranksters. Your days are numbered.

One Response to “Planning an April Fool’s Joke? Careful, Congress may decide you’re a criminal. (AESOP)”

  1. Brandon Says:

    I’m writing my Senators as we speak!


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