Hollywood's Passion For Movie Remakes May Run Into Copyright Problems… Created By Hollywood

from the good-for-the-goose... dept

The MPAA and Hollywood in general have been very, very strong supporters of stricter and more restrictive copyright laws pretty much as far as they can go. Jack Valenti, for many years the head of the MPAA, has famously declared both that, if it were up to him, copyright would last “forever minus a day” and that fair use was not part of the law. But, of course, time and time again, we see that strongest defenders of copyright law often find that they get a bit upset when it constrains them as well. Eriq Gardner has the story of the rise in lawsuits over Hollywood remakes from the estates (or others who purchased the copyrights later) of authors claiming infringement over movies. The main case that resulted in the article is really quite impressive in the number of layers deep that the whole thing goes.

Basically, Viacom (of course, a very strong defender of copyright) is being sued by an outfit called the American Rights Management Company, which claims to hold the copyright on a Damon Runyon story, Madame La Gimp, that was written in 1929. That story was later made into the movie Lady for a Day directed by Frank Capra. A few years later, Capra made yet another movie, also based on the same Runyon story, but this time, the movie was Pocketful of Miracles. About a decade ago, Jackie Chan made a remake, which was just called Miracles, which resulted in a lawsuit and a settlement. The issue now is another movie, which does appear to be either “loosely based on” or “inspired” by one or more of those predecessors, but made for an Indian audience in Bollywood, called Sing is Kinng. Follow all that? Here’s the lawsuit:

The complaint lays out the similarities in the story structure and plot — though, notably not the actual dialogue. If copyright really were about the expression and not the idea, then it’s difficult to see how this is infringing, but as we’ve learned, when it comes to stories, courts seem to only pay lip service to that whole idea/expression dichotomy (despite it supposedly being a key element in keeping copyright law from violating the First Amendment).

While I do feel that Viacom should absolutely be free to make this movie (and others should be free to make their remakes as well), I do have to admit it’s rather amusing to see Viacom and its strong pro-copyright stance potentially come back to bite the company.

Oh, and separately, it should be noted how ridiculous it is that the original Runyon work is still under copyright. When the copyright was registered — as was required in 1929 — the maximum the copyright could have lasted would have been 56 years. That was the “deal” that the US government made in exchange for the monopoly right, the work would go into the public domain by 1986, at the latest. By any measure, the work should be in the public domain. Of course, as we know, in 1976 we got ourselves a new copyright law and in 1998 copyright was extended again — ridiculously applied retroactively. This is a breach of the agreement originally made, which had the deal extended without any benefit to the other side (the public). Oh yeah, and while copyright law today says copyright law is “life plus 70 years,” you might think that this means Runyon’s work should be in the public domain. After all, the man died in 1946 — some 74 years ago. But, you’d be wrong. Because his works were published between 1923 and 1963 (and the copyright was renewed), it gets 95 years of protection from the publication date… meaning it doesn’t go into the public domain until 2025 (assuming — and it’s probably a big assumption — that there are no more copyright extensions).

Hmm. So if the MPAA hadn’t fought so damn hard for copyright law changes and copyright extension, this particular work would have been in the public domain decades ago. But, thanks to the MPAA’s efforts — and Viacom is a major player in the MPAA — it’s covered by copyright for at least another 15 years. Oops.

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Companies: american rights management, viacom

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Comments on “Hollywood's Passion For Movie Remakes May Run Into Copyright Problems… Created By Hollywood”

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39 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

a funny story, but 1 – they havent proved anything at this point, anyone with a few dollars and big brass ones can file a lawsuit, and 2 – possible marginal infringement followed by settlement is what often happens in these sorts of cases. this is something that happens all the time. how many times do you see some unknown author show up claiming some sort of rights to a movie that made huge money? dont confuse the ability to sue with actual truth. nice attempt to slam viacom though. nice use of ‘we’ve learned’ as opposed to ‘we have already shown’. at least you arent troubled.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“this is something that happens all the time. how many times do you see some unknown author show up claiming some sort of rights to a movie that made huge money?”

And you think a system that encourages this type of behavior is a good thing? Wouldn’t it be better if an artist could create a new work without having to worry about the lawsuits that “happen all the time”? I think we would be promoting the progress of the arts a lot more if we did not require all artists to maintain legal representation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

no, i think that the alternative (no protections at all) would lead to an endless cesspool of duplication of ideas, rip offs, and in the end, the power being concentrated on an even smaller pool of writers and producers stealing from everyone else. try to picture the alternatives, and realize that they aren’t that good at all.

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Are you nuts?

No protections at all would mean that people could freely reuse the culture that they grew up in. How the hell would that be concentrated power?

Sure, Hollywood would have an initial advantage, but they’ve sucked so badly at wielding it that it wouldn’t take long for a serious creative from Des Moines to out-class them.

People should not be forbidden from reusing their own culture. To do otherwise is what concentrates power.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

As other have been pointing out, there is little evidence to support your position. Historically, a lack of copyright-type protections has yielded more content and more innovation. With more and more “piracy” happening, we are also yielding more and more content rather than less, so the idea that copyright is ensuring motivation to produce more content is difficult to defend (feel free to do so here, if you can).

Lack of these types of protections may produce a lot of duplication of ideas and lots of ‘garbage’ content, but every man’s garbage is someone else’s gold – who’s idea of a ‘cesspool’ are we supposed to rely on? Lots of what Hollywood currently produces falls into this category for me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

the usual answer. when was the last time we didn’t have any copyright protections? What, about 300 years ago? When it took months for news to reach people, when it might take 10 years for someone to even get a copy of a very expensive book, and so on. come on. dont you think things are just a little different now?

Ima Fish (profile) says:

I think Viacom wants this sort of screwed up system. It has the resources to fight when it wants and license when it needs to. However, a new up and coming director or studio is completely screwed. They have to license everything that goes into their movie.

Like I’ve said before, copyright is not about protecting the works, it’s about protecting and enlarging the monopolies and propping up the status quo.

Math Police says:

Check your math

Mike, you said: “Oh yeah, and while copyright law today says copyright law is “life plus 70 years,” you might think that this means Runyon’s work should be in the public domain. After all, the man died in 1946 — some 74 years ago.”

You might want to check your math when you’re typing your screeds. 1946 was only some 64 years ago. Sorry.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Re: Remakes

Hollywood needs remakes as they seem unable to make a movees that doesn’t involve some black guy with a gun, drugs and sex.

Exactly what movies are you talking about? Avatar? The Dark Knight? Iron Man 2? The Hurt Locker? The Spy Next Door? Where the Wild Things Are? The Fantastic Mr. Fox? Star Trek? (500) Days of Summer? Invictus? Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? Paranormal Activity?

interval says:

Re: Re: Re: Remakes

@Michael: “Umm…I think Hollywood produces a lot of movies that attract lots of viewers – and some good films too.”

But not Avatar. Avatar was a huge, expensive remake of an awful story released about 10 years ago to the pre-pubescent market under the title “Ferngully”. Look it up. Its the same horrible premise about bad humans f’ing the little world of the fairies. Only in this case the fairies are huge and blue. Real big difference there. Cameron should go back to period pieces like Titanic. That was at least watchable.

“Unobtanium”? I mean, come on…

interval says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Remakes

@Ima: “Avatar was not remake of Ferngully…”

Might have well have been.

@Ima: “The ideas were the same, but that’s true of nearly all movie.”

English please.

@Ima: “If you can think of one completely original successful movie please name it.”

Your not really going to make me do this, are you?

Citizen Cane. I can name a bout 100 others.

Niall (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Remakes

“Unobtanium” is a probable parody reference to some mythical ‘magical’ substance that you always got in shows like Star Trek “It’s science Jim, but not as we know it”. For instance, it was used in The Core as the ‘magical’ substance that could withstand silly heat and pressure to go digging to the core of the Earth.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unobtanium

chris (profile) says:

Re: I love it.

Then the studio asses will be all like whaaaa, whaaaa, all these little guys are suing us for using their ideas. Whaaa, whaaa, we need to change the system to suit us again.

the little guys can’t afford to sue, which is why the system is set up this way.

the big corporations can do whatever they want, regardless of the law. it was set up that way on purpose.

silly_me says:

Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas and many other books and movies are very similar to Avatar.

As for this comment: “no, i think that the alternative (no protections at all) would lead to an endless cesspool of duplication of ideas, rip offs, and in the end, the power being concentrated on an even smaller pool of writers and producers stealing from everyone else. try to picture the alternatives, and realize that they aren’t that good at all.”

So nothing of interest was created before copyright laws were introduced? Yes, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Homer, Lucian, DaVinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, the Maya, the Olmec, the Aztec, the Egyptians….nobody produced anything of interest before we came up with draconian copyright laws.

You know, I think none of Shakespeare’s works would have been possible with copyright laws as restrictive as today.

Moreover, copying isn’t the same as stealing. All creative work is derivative (haven’t you seen that amazing video by Nina Paley?) and I don’t think it should be considered a bad thing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

But that’s what happens when you let the lawyers dictate what should or shouldn’t be done with artistic forms.

Lawyers should take more art classes. They might learn, for example, about how collage has been around for a very long time.

Then again:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

DocMenach (profile) says:

Copyright length =

…it gets 95 years of protection from the publication date…(assuming — and it’s probably a big assumption — that there are no more copyright extensions).

Unfortunately, Life+95 years is only the current make believe equation for calculating length of copyright. The true formula that they use is actually: Age of Mickey Mouse + 20 years. Once Life+95 starts getting close to the age of Mickey, we will see the a new formula to prevent Mickey from entering public domain.

me says:

nothing new under the sun.....

I seem to watch the “classic” Hollywood movie channels these days, and it amazes me how many times some movies have been redone.

If Copyrights were to last forever, and if stories that were even vaguely familiar could be sued…. Hollywood would be out of business.

If a company like Disney creates a character like Mickey Mouse and they continue to use him in some way, then they should be able to protect him forever. But if that character is abandoned for a period of time, then I think others should be able to use them.

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