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.