Alice In Public Domainland; Just Because Something Is Free And Open Doesn't Mean You Can't Make Money Off Of It

from the thank-you-public-domain dept

Back in December, we wrote about a submission from someone talking about the new Sherlock Holmes movie, and how it was possible because of the public domain. The truth turned out to be more complicated, but perhaps a better (and more accurate) example of the same point is the new Alice in Wonderland film. There have been a bunch of different movies based on the famous Lewis Carroll book, which has been in the public domain for quite some time.

Michael Weinberg does an excellent job highlighting how the various Alices demonstrate that those of us who support a stronger public domain aren't doing so because we think everything "must be free" or, to quote RIAA boss Mitch Bainwol's insulting falsehood, that we're "against those who actually create the intellectual property." Instead, as the various Alices show, the public domain has freed up tremendous creativity, while still allowing content creators to make plenty of money:
Each of these versions are inspired by the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Each was made with commercial motives in mind, not some urge to set information free (and generally made a lot of money for their creators to boot). Each, at least according to the descriptions in the Times, is bizarre. However what is most striking is that each is bizarre in a way that was probably unanticipated by Alice's original author.

Even though they are strikingly different in almost every imaginable way, we can understand them to be related through that original story. Beyond that, they are stronger works because we understand them in the context of a shared cultural touchstone. They aren't all just freaky movies about some girl and a rabbit. They are Alice in Wonderland stories. That changes how we watch them, think about them, and talk about them.

One of the reasons that the creators of these many versions (who, again, didn't do it for free -- they made the movies to make money) felt free to be as strange as they wanted was because they did not need permission to create their version of Alice. They could take the original story, freak it up however they wanted, and create something new. Creators are better off because they had a way to link a new story to something that people understood (and probably made more money in the process). The public is better off because they can choose between a number of freaky Alice in Wonderlands, or even make their own. Even Alice is better off because she lives on as a cartoon, a little girl, a warrior princess, and whatever else people can dream up for her.
And, of course, this is the original story behind so many classic Disney films as well -- but, Disney has too often focused on then locking up the content that it copied from the public domain.

But the point raised here is an important one. No one is saying that everything must be free and open, and that content creators shouldn't make money. Obviously (to most, but not all, apparently) we've been talking about ways to better make money while also encouraging more widespread access and creativity. Getting away from strict copyright protections is not anti-content creator at all. It's very much pro-creativity. And, as we can see from all the new versions of movies about Alice in Wonderland, even Hollywood knows that the public domain doesn't mean no one makes money.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Jaws4theRevenge, Mar 5th, 2010 @ 5:23pm

    Here's the reply you'll get...

    "But what about the poor descendants of the author? Would you have them starve on the street while intellectual property that should rightfully be theirs is exploited?"

    Well, that's the reply you'd get if these weren't examples of big media using the public domain.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 5th, 2010 @ 5:37pm

    The public domain is the rule and copyright is the exception.

     

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  3.  
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    Spaced out, Mar 5th, 2010 @ 6:11pm

    MY offer to riaa/mpaa

    /begin transmission...
    ill let you come and destroy everything up to ten years old if you fuck off forever

    /end transmission....

     

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  4.  
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    light anti tank intellectual property, Mar 5th, 2010 @ 6:18pm

    copyright isnt ownwership

    its a right and privilege like driving that is granted in this case for a limited time so you can continue to create.

    thats its heart. it does not say UNLIMITED time or LIFETIME
    OR 3 generations of noobs time.

    Seriously i want ot meat one of these riaa and ill do some jail time for punching right in face. IM SICK of this abuse.
    JUST GO AWAY, the world will be better off.

    People made art and music loooooong before copyrights were dreamed up. DEMOCRACY far predates this even. ANCIENT Greeks and Romans didn't need copyright in fact much of Rome was copied with alterations including there gods. THE ULTIMATE INFRINGEMENT EH. What does the catholic church say that the roots of there religion is all based on copyright infringement ? IT is after all a state religion of the roman empire.

     

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  5.  
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    Flakey, Mar 5th, 2010 @ 6:55pm

    Unending copywrong

    First thing I gotta say is it seems Hollydud is bankrupt for ideas. I'm tired of seeing remakes of remakes. The last version of War Of The Worlds sucked as bad as the version before it. Take your pick of any number of redos.

    Can't say much better about Music either. What's with the cover versions of songs? Can not the artists get enough fame without using yesteryears' song? Or is it, they too don't have a clue on originality any more? Doing it again doesn't make it better. To be truthful, most of the covers suck.

    If anything we should return copyright length back to 10 years. If the majors haven't made it in that amount of time, they aren't going to get it later. Even Hollydud supports this idea of the prime time for money making is the short time it's in the box office, which is why they want to prevent rentals during that time.

    This is the first time, according to articles that came out at the end of the year that last year was a zero year for pubic domain. Absolutely nothing made it into public domain. Those songs you hear in your lifetime, will never make it to public domain while you are alive. That is to say unless you beat the national survival rates. If you do beat them, chances are good, you won't be able to enjoy them as your hearing goes with age.

    No one gets to build on something they've heard in their lifetime, while the experience is there to do them good.

    The purpose of copyright has been subverted and our congresscritters have turned it into copywrong.

     

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  6.  
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    Thomas (profile), Mar 5th, 2010 @ 7:26pm

    Wow

    After reading the comments at the linked post, I have to wonder .. Is there a cult or some kind of organized group that tries to refute such well-informed posts and dilute the conversation about balanced copyright with a load of moral and ethical posturing about "piracy" and "copying" that try to degrade the conversation into an emotional argument about who should get paid for some bit of art? I get the point of the article. Lots of people (corporations, entities) have been able to create something new, something that enriches society as a whole, simply because a cool story, a well written story is (as was intended by our forefathers) in the public domain so new people with new ideas can retell the story as they see fit. That's the point, and the way it always was before giant corporations pumped a ton of money into the legal system to protect their outdated business model.

     

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  7.  
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    redwall_hp (profile), Mar 6th, 2010 @ 3:50am

    Re: Here's the reply you'll get...

    News for them: that's not what copyright law is supposed to be for. It's original intent was to prevent plagiarism (e.g. passing off someone else's work as your own), not to prop-up someone's business model.

     

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  8.  
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    D. Hensley (profile), Mar 6th, 2010 @ 4:37am

    Not just movies

    "White Rabbit" also did rather well. Grace Slick could be as 'creative' with the story as she wanted to be... The point of 'copy right' has pretty much become outdated with the digital age --it was becoming ever more irrelevant to the end user many years before that. We are just living through it's (rather ugly) death throes. The belief in endless 'entitlement' is always difficult to eradicate.

     

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  9.  
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    Betty Chambers, Mar 6th, 2010 @ 4:51am

    Question: Public Domain vs Hollywood Film

    I have a question: If someone makes an Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella flick similar (sorta) to the Hollywood film version is that stealing their copyright? Or is it something that is still public domain material?

    I'm confused as to how Disney could own the rights to Brothers Grimm stuff when that is in the public domain.

    Is the confusion over this being done on purpose? It used to seem straight forward to me.

     

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  10.  
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    PaulT (profile), Mar 6th, 2010 @ 4:53am

    Re: Unending copywrong

    I find this point annoyingly overused, thought the recent scope of "unoriginality" is a little extreme.

    "The last version of War Of The Worlds sucked as bad as the version before it."

    Erm, which version are you talking about? There were 3 versions of War of The Worlds that came out recently - the Spielberg one and 2 direct to DVD versions (one of which had a sequel, of all things). Before that, there was the 1953 George Pal classic, to which I take exception to the word "sucked", if that's what you mean. Maybe you mean that half-assed unofficial remake, Independence Day?

    Although the newer rash of remakes are a little annoying, it's always happened. Silent movies were made into talkies. Black and white into colour. Oscar winners like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments were remakes, while even Hitchcock remade one of his own movies. "Remake" does not mean "bad", at least not any more than "Hollywood movie" means "bad".

    "What's with the cover versions of songs? Can not the artists get enough fame without using yesteryears' song?"

    This, also, has always happened. One of Hendrix's best known songs is a cover version. The Beatles had a big hit with a cover early in their career. Many of Elvis' hits were cover versions.

    ...then of course you contradict yourself with the rest of your post. If these songs were all public domain, would Hollywood and the RIAA suddenly find a new vein of originality? Or would there just be more remakes and cover versions, now that the money men are freed from high licensing costs? I suspect the latter.

    The only way to overcome this is to buy the music and watch the movies you want to see. They're out there, you just have to stop taking what the corporations are feeding you and look for something new. Go out and see the original movies, and buy the albums that aren't recorded by karaoke contest winners. If nobody buys them, the RIAA will continue with the cover albums.

     

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  11.  
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    PaulT (profile), Mar 6th, 2010 @ 4:59am

    Re: Question: Public Domain vs Hollywood Film

    If I understand it correctly, you could still make such a movie but you're have to be *very* careful not to utilise material that Disney invented (even though, by rights, their version of Cinderella should have been in the public domain decades ago).

    For example, when Hammer made their version of Frankenstein, they had to be very careful not to have Christopher Lee look anything like Boris Karloff's original version as that was a creation of Universal and not Mary Shelley.

    Actually, you'd be surprised at how little resemblance some parts of Disney's Grimm fairytales bear to the originals

     

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  12.  
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    Rekrul, Mar 6th, 2010 @ 5:43am

    The truth turned out to be more complicated, but perhaps a better (and more accurate) example of the same point is the new Alice in Wonderland film. There have been a bunch of different movies based on the famous Lewis Carroll book, which has been in the public domain for quite some time.

    There has been a lot of other media beside just movies based on Alice, including several video games. I'm sure Lewis Carroll never anticipated those.

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    NAMELESS.ONE, Mar 6th, 2010 @ 6:25am

    so you want a copy of my bella lugosi movies PAY ME

    there thats easy
    out of copyright and i hold copies and local too
    go ahead you can get them but if you want someone to JUST make you a copy

    and ya know what as long as its out of copyright aka 1960 or before

    thats perfectly legal and you'd be surprised i can get 4-5$ a dvdr takes less then half a hour to get it all done


    oh and that princess of mars with tha EX underaged pron actress wasn't a bad movie rendition of the book

     

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  14.  
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    fiveorange (profile), Mar 6th, 2010 @ 9:38am

    Murdoch

    I wish Murdoch and his lame products would just disappear.

     

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  15.  
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    Betty Chambers, Mar 6th, 2010 @ 12:48pm

    Re: Re: Question: Public Domain vs Hollywood Film

    Thanks.

     

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  16.  
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    Luci Temple, Mar 6th, 2010 @ 2:18pm

    Great article

    Thanks for this, great article :)

     

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  17.  
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    Nina Paley (profile), Mar 8th, 2010 @ 5:46am

    Re: Re: Here's the reply you'll get...

    Copyright was never designed to prevent plagiarism. I'm curious where you got that idea - citations please? You can read about the origins of copyright here.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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