Poor Mojo's Classic Rant
Poor Mojo's Rant #140
Revenge of the Jedi: Starting to Think About Where Copyright is Getting Us (part 2 of 2) (published June 26, 2003)
by Fritz Swanson
Part Two: The New, The Public Domain, and Why Plagiarism is Good
Professor Lessis has talked about the notion of the new to a certain extent. Before the Supreme Court, one of his arguments was regarding the notion of the shrinking public domain.
There has even developed a public domain protection movement. A movement which has found focus in the following petition:
In my mind, this argument over the ownership of discrete works of art comes from the same essential mindset. Lessig, like the RIAA and the other corporations he is fighting, view art as a discrete commodity and so they are fighting over it like it was a chair, a piece of property, a thing which can be owned.
I think we have lost an essential bit of language in all of this debate. "Knights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues is not art. And I don't mean that in the "that ain't art, that's trash" sense, but in the literal sense of the song not being idntified by that word. That song, all songs, all books, all paintings, are works of art. They are products of a process, and the process is called art.
The arguments recapped in part one of this essay center on the notion of protecting the product, the work, as a discrete entity. The goal of copyright law as argued above is to incentivize the production of new discrete works of art. It is obsessed, by its nature, with novelty of form. Is this a new song? Or does it have enough chords in common with a previous work to be that old song? If so, we should either ban it or charge it a licensing fee. Infringement is based on this premise of studying the object.
I teach creative writing at a major university and I think this attitude is in some way hurting the cause of art. Don't get me wrong, I want to sell a novel, cash in, sell my movie rights, move out to Hollywood, go the way of Faulkner or Chabon, drunk and powerful and famous. Copyright law incentivizes me to do that, and has trained me from a very young age to think of art as this big jackpot endeavor. As they say, many will enter, few will win. The focus is on that one new, neat, novel idea. But not too new, or too neat. Just different enough to be copyrighted and locked away, but just traditional enough to be instantly recognizable.
And here is where we have run into our problem. As the laws tighten down, I think the basis of the laws, this notion of the work being the focus, and ownership being the key, starts to unravel for me as an artist.
A glance at the history of literature, for example, reveals that the vast majority of the greats were thieves, and that thieving was essential to their work: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Mallory, Milton, Shakespeare, Poe, Shelley. And if we look in parrellel to the "great men" of letters at the folk tradition that underpins them, at "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty" and "Snow White", at the stories of Olympus and Asgard and Avalon; we see again and again that the artistry is frequently not in the story or the characters or the setting or the title, or any of those things which we think so ownable, but in the process of their presentation.
Take Shakespeare for example. Of course we could focus on the histories, which leand themselves to continual reinterpretation. But I think a better focus might be Merchant of Venice, which is in many ways Shakespeare reworking a contemporary play, The Jew of Malta by Marlowe.
In Shakespeare's day, this was an acceptable, in many ways ncessary, component of the industry. But imagine today someone else producing an alternate Episode One.
Really think about this for a second.
On the one hand, you know that Lucasfilm would obliterate them if they got very far. As long as we travel down this path of tighter and tighter ownership of ideas, the components of art, Lucasfilm can obliterate away.
But I bet more than half of this audience would agree that almost anyone could have made a better movie. And I'm not talking about fanboys in their basement. Imagine if we lived in a world were there was a legal and intellectual framework for reinterpretation? Imagine if, once an artist created a world, they had to compete with others for ownership of that world? In this framework, we would be incentivizing the development of an Artistic Process, and not just a few discrete works.
I read lots of interviews with artists and writers because I like to see how they play with frequently trite questions. One of my favorite answers ever was when Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, et al) was asked one of the most trite questions in the celebrity interview industry:
"What movie do you wish you had written?"
This was a form interview that he probably filled out at home or on set, so there was no chance for a followup. His reply was simple, but I think profound.
He wrote: "Revenge of the Jedi"
In creative writing class, my students are obsessed with originality. They are paralized for at least the first half of the semester because it has been ingrained in them that they MUST WRITE SOMETHING NEW AND ORIGINAL.
This is the worst burden ever placed on any artist, and I feel like it has yoked every generation of artists in the last fifty or more years.
Artists want to sing in front of the crowd. Artists want to play with the images and themes that are connecting everyone, all of us. Artists want to re imagine their own dreams.
Well, we live in an age of dreams, but most of those dreams are owned by other people. And this isn't a corporation vs. lone artist problem. Metallica is probably more conservative with their copyrights then the corporations they work with. It is this very notion of the ownership of ideas instead of process that has gotten us in trouble.
I think Revenge of the Jedi could be one of the most important movies never made. And this isn't an argument for shorter terms so that things like Star Wars can come more quickly into the public domain. This is an argument for a vast re-imagination of the notion of art, of the new, and of infringement. This is an argument for refocusing our legal framework on the process rather than the product.
We need to encourage stealing art. We need to re-articulate our philosophy such that reinterpretation isn't even called STEALING. We need a world where students of art can cut their teeth on projects that matter to them because they interact directly with the work that they admire so much. If a film student was inspired by Star Wars or the Matrix, we need a system that not only allows, but encourages them to add their perspective to that mix.
In Shakespeare's day, in the age of Homer, even during the age of Shelley, art was much more a conversation, and a system of mannerisms. Now it is all monologue, and when great artists fail (as in the case of Mr. Lucas) we have no way of saving the art from the artist.
Worse still, we are driving away generations of potential artists, especially idle amateurs, because we burden them with the legal and the psychological obsession of strict novelty. We don't foster the broad spectrum of amateur talent because we deny them the right to legally work with the stories and the images which MOST intrigue them.
If we let this stand, something bigger than ideas have been stolen. The process of art, the dialogue of creative minds, will have been taken from all of us. This is a tragedy for which even a Jedi might seek revenge.
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