I Wish More Countries 'Stole' Our Movies

from the not-making-a-policy-proposal dept

A significant part of the appeal for copyright maximalism is respect for the artist as a singular, uncompromising force for expressing their values in an otherwise crass, materialistic world. This view is traditionally identified with the artists’ rights attitude featured in the continental tradition, but has gained prominence in the Anglosphere.

It’s grimly ironic, then, when copyright incentivizes artists to subvert their values for those very same crass, materialistic concerns. Recall the case of Charles Dickens, an abolitionist who came to support the Confederacy in the Civil War because of his distaste for copyright-disrespecting Northern publishers.

This pattern repeats itself in contemporary Hollywood, in the form of creative choices influenced by the increasingly Chinese-moviegoer-driven bottom line. “Will it play in Beijing?” is the new “will it play in Peoria?”

Casting a Chinese actor or changing some elements to appeal to the new audience is one thing, and far from unheard of. Changes to cater to the demands of an authoritarian regime are another thing entirely—a form of self-censorship that I believe is unconscionable and fundamentally immoral.

The 2012 Red Dawn remake, where the conquering army was changed to North Korea from China, was an obvious move to not alienate Chinese moviegoers. Trailers for the new Top Gun film sparked controversy when Maverick’s signature jacket dropped the Taiwanese and Japanese flags. The Departed was pulled due to a scene where the Chinese government illicitly purchased military technology from Jack Nicholson’s criminal enterprise. The list goes on.

I wish this weren’t the case. Indeed, I wish that major movie studios and production companies would forgo astronomical returns on their movies, settling for simply sky-high ones, by allowing blatant copying, piracy, and (already extensive) bootlegging in film markets hosted by oppressive regimes.

I want to make something perfectly clear: I am not, repeat not, making an argument for any specific policy change. Rather, I want to make an appeal for rights holders to do their part by not making creative choices with an authoritarian audience in mind.

As much as Hollywood likes to pretend it’s on the right side of history, it has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to kowtow to the censorial demands of the PRC.  

This dynamic was brilliantly displayed in an episode from South Park’s most recent season:

The episode, called “Band in China,” led the show to be, predictably, banned in China. Parker and Stone released the following statement shortly after the episode aired:

For those of you keeping score, the creators of an animated movie with the most swear words in history, who received an Oscar nomination for best original song in that movie, and showed up to receive their award on LSD wearing dresses, have demonstrated more courage in standing up to an authoritarian regime despite the financial consequences than any other media company in the U.S., if not the world. Let that sink in.

Have I mentioned that I’m not making any policy proposals here? Aside from making copyright law stop at the border, I’m not even sure how one could craft policy to address my specific concerns. Rather, my argument is for corporate social responsibility. It is incumbent on studios making a point with their content to forgo making a buck in order to spread their message.

In cases where production companies have to choose between changing their movies to satisfy the demands of an authoritarian regime and allowing anti-authoritarian ideals to be spread, it is clear that they should choose the latter.

Though showing the American flag on the Moon or the Taiwanese flag on Tom Cruise’s jacket probably won’t be enough to end communist dictatorship, liberal western culture can expose some of the cracks in authoritarian regimes. Smuggled copies of Dallas showed Romanians living under Ceausescu a life without breadlines. Activists risk their lives to smuggle flash drives full of American and South Korean shows and movies into North Korea to undermine the Kim regime. Though (not unfairly) criticized as “propaganda,” some of the most popular early broadcasts into the Soviet Union were of jazz music.

If my advocacy for spreading a message of liberalism and anti-authoritarianism is too bold for you, what about taking a stand for LGBT rights? Call Me By Your Name and Brokeback Mountain are banned in China due to a prohibition on pro-LGBT content.

To use a different example, Disney deliberately removed the lesbian kiss at the end of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in its release in Singapore to avoid a more restrictive rating, as required by Singaporean censorship guidelines. If Disney wanted to take a stand for gay rights and thumb their nose at homophobia, they could have made the uncut version of the movie free for all to see in Singapore.

I’d like to close by referencing the Amazon adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. One of the major premises of the show is (spoiler alert) the ability of characters to travel to other universes and retrieve film reels from them. The most important of these MacGuffins is the film reel that kicks off the series, named “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”:

The film reel is “real” in that it comes from another universe where the Allies won the war. Other than setting up the sci-fi elements of the show, the relevance to the plot is to show occupied Americans that the Nazis and the Japanese can be beaten.

It turns out that films from faraway places can inspire hope — even when they don’t add to the bottom line back in the home market. That’s a valuable lesson for Hollywood to keep in mind.

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Companies: disney

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Comments on “I Wish More Countries 'Stole' Our Movies”

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18 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Devonavar (profile) says:

This is the best Techdirt article I've read in a long time!

More like this please! I started reading Techdirt because it was so full of examples of how copyright law and truely open culture are at odds. I miss those articles, and this one is a great example of the genre!

Our culture truly suffers when the decisions around what kind of information and entertainment get made are solely profit-driven. Copyright enables this kind of media production, and even though those problems are more often talked about in the context of social media these days, copyright still has a strong effect on the types of media that get produced.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: This is the best Techdirt article I've read in a long ti

"…but it turns out it was really copyright all along."

Why do you think the desolation of current movies and music looks the way it does?

Go look at the blurred lines ruling and Kraftwerk’s lawsuit in germany, over two seconds worth of industrial noises. Then wonder no more why today’s mass-marketed music is all written by the same handful of song writers…

https://nypost.com/2015/10/04/your-favorite-song-on-the-radio-was-probably-written-by-these-two/

Thanks to copyright there’s just considerable risk in letting artists write their own these days.

The movie industry is much the same. Why risk a new venture which might get you in hot water with any of a thousand copyright trolls eager to lay claim to "phenomenon X" in your script when you already own all the copyrights required to build a third sequel for your original cash cow?

Copyright isn’t the only reason modern culture is largely shit. But it IS a major factor.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

The 2012 Red Dawn remake, where the conquering army was changed to North Korea from China

As someone who saw the original Red Dawn when it came out… I never knew that the Chinese spoke Russian and carried USSR flags….

The point is still mostly the same though. And I too would like to see corporations taking social responsibility as seriously as they do in China.

ECA (profile) says:

An interesting idea..

For the movie industry..
Lets wonder what would happen IF’
Insted of paying TONS of money to our Actors and all the people that work for them..Min $1000 per day jobs..
To the thought that you can declare that al the other nations are hacking your movies, and taking the pro9fits fo themselves..
Not paying to see those films, and that things have to get CHEAPER..

Used to be,
Cartoons were cheap,
Then Live actors were cheap,
Then Animation was Cheap
Then REAL was cheaper..
And NOW animation, even tho its 100 times faster then years ago.. STILL costs allot of money..

Anonymous Coward says:

Have I mentioned that I’m not making any policy proposals here?

Yes, and you’re wrong. Asking "for rights holders to do their part by not making creative choices with an authoritarian audience in mind" is a policy proposal, which would change their current policies of trying to satisfy these authoritarian governments. (The audience itself is not necessarily authoritarian.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Dickens choosing to support slavery over copyright infringement is showing his true values, not subverting them.

Corporations on the other hand, have no values but money to begin with. Copyrights or no, they would always go for the most immediately profitable decisions.

"[C]orporate social responsibility" is a myth. Hollywood like all big business is in it to make a buck, not spread a message. They will only feign responsibility where it’s profitable to do so, or legally required.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Dickens choosing to support slavery

The linked article says he was against slavery. He did later support the Confederates, but it doesn’t say he changed his mind about slavery. His point that the North was using slavery as a pretext to gain sympathy seems reasonable, given the glacial pace of civil rights after they won.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The linked article says he was against slavery. He did later support the Confederates

Then he wasn’t fully against slavery, since the Confederacy was formed — by the admission of its leadership¹ — to protect the institution of slavery.


¹ — “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"His point that the North was using slavery as a pretext to gain sympathy seems reasonable…"

Oh, the north wasn’t exactly a shining beacon of progress – consider the fact that Lincoln himself held that a black man was to be held a man but not a brother – and suggested, unless i misremember, that the black man’s vote should be considered to hold 60% of the weight of the white man’s vote. Egality was never on the table. The abolition of slavery was.

That said, however, nothing can gainsay the fact that the confederacy was first and foremost about preserving slavery as an institution. You don’t get to support the confederacy without similarly upholding slavery. It’s as much a package deal as applauding the third reich means you favor anti-semitism as an unavoidable result.

It’s pretty clear that Dickens was a racist and xenophobe. Traits he shared with many of his contemporaries but took to extremes not often seen. Bluntly put he couldn’t care less what happened to a bunch of exported colonial natives as long as it meant they didn’t set foot on british soil.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You are against slavery? Is that actually so? In China, many people are forced into work, under CCP-controlled entities which later refuse to pay them. That’s how communism is. It’s theft from the people. So, if you are against slavery, are you against communism, at least?!!

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"You are against slavery? Is that actually so? In China, many people are forced into work, under CCP-controlled entities which later refuse to pay them."

A) China is for all practical intents and purposes, even more capitalist than the current US of A. Yes, they still call themselves a "people’s republic" and name themselves "socialists" because that way they can pretend things actually changed during Mao’s little "revolution" – which in the end accomplished nothing but changing the window dressing on the same feudal bureaucracy which always held power in China.

B) The US has a disproportionally large prison population – bigger in straight numbers than most nations in the world – which is essentially in a state of permanent indentured serfdom. Most of the prison population is there not because they went in as hardened felons, often being people who failed to pay their parking ticket for the third time or accepted a plea bargain for five years over what should have been ten days.

So you’re saying this while in the full knowledge that the US is even worse when it comes to forced labor than China?

Communism certainly has issues but it’s a largely academic problem when there aren’t actually any communist countries around you can point to. And slavery is similarly an issue which you should probably address at home first, since that’s the nation your lot usually pretends is a "free nation".

The sad fact of the matter is that a nation which itself practices slavery and torture has serious issues trying to hold the moral high ground against another nation which does the same.

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