Tuesday, August 11, 2009

metaDRAMA: Copywrong

I'm no legal expert, but what?!? We'll never know if it'd hold up in court, as Spinal Tap has declined to fight this in court (yes, this is real), but Lego refuses to allow a fan-made music video onto a Spinal Tap DVD because it features Lego characters in "inappropriate" situations. I already think copyright law is ridiculous, but this is a real low point in the precedence department. Essentially, if I buy anything, be it a G.I. Joe, a Calvin Klein suit, or a Pepsi, and then try to make it into art, I can technically be harassed with copyright infringement for not upholding the unwritten standards of the product?

Look, it's one thing if I try to create a product that's eerily similar to yours, using your material as a template--for instance, if I analyzed that Pepsi and created a drink called Yo!, which tasted exactly the same. Or if I created my own unique flavor but then tried to brand it as Peppy, with a similar bottle design and everything. But if I'm an artist, and I wanted to make a satirical movie about a super-villain born from drinking Pepsi, I'm not sure why I'm not allowed to do so. I bought the bottles, and at best you'd sue for defamation, no? These are objects that exist in the world--we ought to have the right to use them. And if not, then I don't want to see product placement ever again; it's disgusting to think that they have some "right" to buy their way into art, but that we have no way, having bought their product, to use it in our art--as long as we're creating something discernibly different; i.e., the people who buy the Spinal Tap DVD would not be purchasing it in lieu of Lego products.

Not convinced? Consider more extreme examples: an artist faces copyright charges because the corporation that makes the pigment of blue he used--never mind that he bought it--thinks that it's been used in a way that reflects poorly on the quality of their blue. Having then learned his lesson, he decides to create his own blue, and it later comes out that to make that blue, he ground up blue raspberry rock candy--and the company which makes that raw material now sues him.

The point which I'm circuitously getting around to is this: all art is created from material. There are a limited number of raw materials out there, and an increasing number of materials with patents on them--including materials and objects that don't actually exist yet. No matter how many arguments I hear for the importance of protecting artists themselves through copyright law--i.e., Mickey Mouse cannot be used unless licensed by Disney--all we're really doing, time and time again, is reducing the vocabulary, tools, and raw material that we actually need to create things.

Yesterday, it was a generic claim against one of the Twilight books ("Your book has a vampire and werewolf kissing! So does mine! Fight!"). Today, it's the bonus feature on a Spinal Tap DVD ("No groin-grabbing Lego men!"). Tomorrow, it's that indie comic you've been working on for six years, because apparently one of your characters looks too much like a more popular one, even though they have absolutely nothing in common. And next year, perhaps, it's the one-man show you're performing at the Fringe Festival, in the Under St. Marks Theatre, for a crowd of 40, and you make the mistake of drinking from an Evian water bottle--inappropriate!, shouts an auditor from the wings. Artists have enough to worry about without this bullshit. I'm just glad that there are people out there like Michael Laurence (with his Krapp, 39), who are clever enough to find ways around copyright--and to remind us all of how magnificent the result can be, how richer our discussion, when we allow our imaginations to simply run wild.


newman said...

I will say we humans are in a constant push pull between form and freedom and please allow me, in this instance, to make the case for form. Form equals order. It equals safety. Without form there could be no freedom. When people accept the concept of form it makes it possible to build statues and write laws and even kill each other in newer, more bloodier ways. What form also gives us is seemingly inane copywright protocall that may appear, at first glance, bombastic but what we must realize is that the greater good is being served by having these laws and we should not jump to outrageous hyperbole with not evidence. And, as my mother used to tell me at the dinner table as a child, "remember, there are starving kids in China."

Aaron Riccio said...

Not sure if I follow you completely, as this post isn't advocating deconstruction and the wholesale abandonment of form. (Hyperbole is a tool, not the point.) It's about the freedom to *use* existing forms.

You mention laws, but laws are based on precedent. I think the world would be *more* chaotic if you weren't allowed to refer to anything done in the past when building the world of the future.

I'm also not sure what "greater good" is served by allowing Lego to dictate the ways in which its toys can be played with. Is a toy even actually a toy--as opposed to a tool--if it can serve only one set function?

I hear that Theresa Rebeck's been writing a lot about the importance of form in theater lately, you might want to check her stuff out.

Slimbolala said...

Lego figures in inappropriate situations are hilarious. That must be adequate legal defense, yes?

fjl1960 said...

Slimbolala, that’s an interesting point. I’ve gotten on a kick of doing parodies on YouTube, and it was explained to me by a lawyer friend that (while she emphasized this is not the actual legal standard) it’s probably protected parody if you’re making fun of it but probably not parody if you’re just having fun with it. It does seem the more you comment on the original or potentially offend the creators of the original, the more likely you are to be protected as a parodist. I find something ironic about that.