This Is Why We Can't Have Fun Things: The Copyright Dispute Over Lord Buckethead's UK Political Career
from the well-that's-silly dept
You might recall during the 2017 UK elections, some attention was paid to the ongoing tradition of quirky, satirical political candidates running for office. But none got more attention than one “Lord Buckethead.” There are lots of videos and photos showing Lord Buckethead on stage with Theresa May on election night, but the best summary of the whole situation came from John Oliver:
Of course, this was not, in actuality, the first time “Lord Buckethead” had run for office. There was a Lord Buckethead who ran against Margaret Thatcher in 1987. And against John Major in 1992. Those were both done by Mike Lee, who was a video distributor and indie film producer, who thought it might get him some attention for some of his movies. In 2017 comedian Jon Harvey took up the cause.
But all of it was actually based on a character from a 1984 science fiction movie called Hyperspace, which was a (pre-Space Balls) Star Wars parody that you’ve probably never heard of, starring Chris Elliott and Paula Poundstone. Lee released the film in the UK, retitling it “Gremloids” in an attempt to capitalize on Gremlins… a totally different movie that was two years old by that point. Hyperspace/Gremloids was originally written and directed by an American filmmaker, Todd Durham.
After the 2017 return of Lord Buckethead, Durham apparently decided to exert his copyright on the character and take all the fun away:
Online interest was enormous, with offers coming in from around the world. This ultimately ended with Harvey, who once worked with Armando Iannucci on the Time Trumpet series, making contact with Todd Durham, the film-maker behind the original Gremloids. Initially friendly conversations later broke down, with the US film director asserting his control over his previously forgotten creation.
Harvey had attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to the Twitter account and felt he had some degree of moral ownership over how the character had developed. ?Todd said that the Twitter account I created wasn?t legal as it stood, and that to rectify it I needed to give him the password to the account. I didn?t know then ? and still don?t know now ? what my rights were and I couldn?t find an affordable way to find out, so eventually I acquiesced.?
Early this year the account began tweeting again and someone else in a newly commissioned costume began appearing at People?s Vote rallies, raising ?15,000 to stand in the EU elections, only for the electoral bid to be abandoned when it was pointed out that a run would be likely to take votes away from remain-supporting parties.
From there you get lots of typical copyright-speak:
Durham ? who also created the successful Hotel Transylvania franchise ? said the crowdfunded money had been returned. He also asserted that no one else had ?any legitimate claim nor right of control to my copyright-protected character for any reason?.
?The comedic intergalactic space lord character that I created and developed was not taken in a new direction by others in 2017,? said the director, citing the historical occasions when different individuals had stood as the character against Margaret Thatcher and John Major. ?Then, in subsequent decades, I continued to develop the political direction of Lord Buckethead?s character through projects of my own.?
Yeah, sure. But the only reason Lord Buckethead has any attention now in the political climate we’re in is because of what Harvey did with it. And this gets at some of the many problems with copyright today, in which ownership of “the copyright” may be wholly disconnected with what makes a work popular or interesting. This keeps happening where someone takes some mostly ignored/obsolete piece of popular culture and makes it relevant again — only to find the copyright holder suddenly demanding money for it.
You can argue, of course, that Harvey never should have used the Buckethead character in the first place, but it’s a bit laughable to argue that Harvey wasn’t what drove all of the new interest in the character in the past few years. But, because copyright does not recognize this possibility, and gives so much control to the holder of the copyright — even if they’re not using it — we end up in situations like this where we lose out on some fun because people get so obsessed with owning cultural ideas and memes.