The controversy centers around a segment about an hour into the film. Science advocate PZ Myers argues that greater science literacy would "lead to the erosion of religion," and expresses the hope that religion would "slowly fade away." The narrator, Ben Stein, asserts that Myers' ideas aren't original. Rather, he is "merely lifting a page out of John Lennon's songbook."
The viewer is then treated to a clip from John Lennon's "Imagine," with the lyrics "Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too." The music is accompanied by black-and-white footage "of a military parade, which gives way to a close up of Joseph Stalin waving." Next, the film cuts to a guest who argues that there is a connection between "transcendental values" and "what human beings permit themselves to do one to the other." Evidently, religion is the only thing standing between us and Stalinist dictatorship.
Judge Stein's task wasn't to critique the dubious logic of this segment, but to evaluate the narrower question of whether the film's use of "Imagine" is fair under copyright law. He noted that the film was focused on a subject of public interest, and that the film was commenting on Lennon's anti-religious message. The excerpting of copyrighted works for purpose of "comment and criticism" is explicitly protected by the Copyright Act, and Judge Stein ruled that this provision applied in this case.
Imagine there's no Fair Use
The decision quotes extensively from Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley, a 2006 decision that allowed the reprinting of reduced-size versions of several historical posters used in a coffee-table book about the Grateful Dead. In that case, as in this one, the alleged infringers had used the works in a commercial product, but the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that "courts are more willing to find a secondary use fair when it produces a value that benefits the broader public interest." Whatever the merits of its argument, Expelled is clearly commentary on an issue of public concern, and the use of "Imagine" was central to its argument. Those facts weighed heavily in favor of a finding of fair use.
Stein and company were defended by lawyers from Stanford's Fair Use Project. In a blog post announcing their decision to take the case, executive director Anthony Falzone wrote that "The right to quote from copyrighted works in order to criticize them and discuss the views they represent lies at the heart of the fair use doctrine," and argued that Ono's actions threaten free speech.
We've noted before that intelligent design is not a scientific theory so much as an attempt to create the appearance of controversy using flashy PR tactics. Indeed, the advocates of intelligent design theory have explicitly advocated that schools "teach the controversy," which gives schoolchildren the mistaken impression that there is widespread controversy regarding the merits of evolution within the academy. Expelled in particular has advanced this narrative by featuring scientists who supposedly faced retaliation for their support of intelligent design. (The film greatly exaggerates the persecution of intelligent design advocates)
It is, therefore, unfortunate that Lennon's heirs sought to use copyright law to squelch criticism of Lennon's lyrics. No matter how dishonest Stein and company's arguments may be, they have the right to make them, and copyright must give way to the First Amendment. Ono's aggressive tactics will give Stein and company an undeserved PR victory, allowing them to play the beleaguered underdogs fighting the "Darwinist" establishment. The way to counter Expelled is with logic and evidence, of which there's an ample supply. Overzealous application of copyright law is counterproductive.