We keep hearing about how the entertainment industry needs strong copyright in order to create incentives for the creation of new and original content, saying that without such things, there would be no new creative works at all. And, at the same time, we have the very same people mocking any cultural attempts to build new content by remixing and mashing up old works into something new. So I'm curious to see how those same people explain the fact that Hollywood's entire focus these days seems to be on taking old works and redoing them, rather than creating new and "unique" stories:
In fact, over the next 12 months, audiences can expect to see a new episode or version of "Planet of the Apes," “The Avengers,” “Spider-Man,” “Fright Night,” “The Great Gatsby,” “When Worlds Collide,” “RoboCop,” “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” “The Thing,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “The Raven,” “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Red Dawn” and “Footloose.”
Add those to recent updated versions of “Winnie the Pooh,” “Clash of the Titans,” “Karate Kid,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “War of the Worlds,” “Arthur,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Tourist” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
And deja vu happens when you turn the television on too.
This fall ABC are bringing back the 1970s series “Charlie’s Angels,” FOX is awakening “The Flintstones,” MTV has its hands on “Teen Wolf,” and we’ve already been slapped with Aaron Spelling’s “90210” and “Melrose Place” on the CW, while NBC re-imagined “The Bionic Woman” and “Knight Rider.”
But Hollywood is producing all these wonderful "new" and creative works, right? And remixing old works isn't creative at all?
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.