For a Wider Public Domain

This past week I witnessed an example of Lawrence Lessig’s point that the protection of creative content in the U.S. has gone too far.  I spent time at two different film festivals in Seattle.  At the LGBT film fest, I watched a very creative film based on a woman’s memoir about her life in the queer scene of the 1990’s San Francisco Mission District.  Each chapter in her book was turned into a segment of a feature film and was created by different film crews.  The pieces featured different actors, styles and tones.  One segment even used stop-motion photography to animate clay buffaloes representing the main characters, who had consumed a bag of mushrooms.

The final segment sampled a couple different older movies starring Angelina Jolie.  The gimmick had the audience roaring in laughter as we saw Jolie appear on screen as the protagonist, identifiable as such by the drawn in glasses on her face.  The dialogue was voiced-over, not quite matching Jolie’s mouth movements, and an alternative, crudely drawn, scenery was superimposed into the frames.  This was clearly an homage to the lesbian-themed films of the 1990s in which Jolie starred.  The device was a clever way to connect with and build on cultural references known well to this audience and that would have been in the backdrop of the author’s life in that decade.

During the Q&A after the screening, one of the producers was asked to address the Jolie segment.  She admitted that it was a risky choice for them to have made.  She joked that it probably meant they could never make any money on their film.  After all, the licensing fees for those bits of film would likely have been exorbitant.  But it was clear that the entire project was a labor of love, with very little funding raised and each film crew responsible for making their segment happen.  She didn’t seem concerned and shrugged her shoulders saying that perhaps the film would just have to have some sort of unprofitable online life and make its way around film festival circuits.

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Before having read Lessig’s book, Free Culture, I think I may have been one of the millions of Americans he describes as “oblivious” to the copyright extemism that he believes exists today.  I cannot imagine the screenwriter or Jolie minding the playful use of their material.  There was no harm to them and it was not an instance of cheating the original artists out of profits for piracy.  This example paralleled Lessig’s case of filmmaker Joe Else, who was asked to give $10,000 to the media company that owned Matt Groenig’s cartoons for permission to have a 4.5 second clip of the Simpsons playing in the background of one of his scenes.  Groenig didn’t care, yet Else was subject to the rules that benefit the large media company that owned the cartoonist’s material.

Lessig gives numerous examples and a strong history lesson as to why today’s balance of controls on creative property are way out of wack.  I had not considered the valuable ways in which culture is made by copying previous ideas.  Perhaps I was an ignorant purist before, not considering Lessig’s examples of how Mickey Mouse was born through the “pirating” or borrowing from Buster Keaton and the Jazz Singer, or how Eastman revolutionized photography for ordinary people by building on Daguerre’s camera and Talbot’s negatives.  Culture and innovation move forward by building on previous innovators’ ideas and creations.  It’s undesirable and harmful when individuals simply take ideas directly and try to profit, cutting out the creator’s right to the benefits of their work.  Therefore, Lessig argues that the concept of property and copyrights is a good thing, but there must be limitations so that innovation is not squashed by tight controls that resemble a feudal, rather than a free, society.

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Lessig sees the limitless possibilities for creativity and expression in the internet, pointing to blogs, photo sharing sites and p2p sharing.  However, while digital technology has opened up an unprecedented opportunity for the sharing of ideas and works, today’s restrictions have limited access to such ideas like never before.  He appeals strongly to our historical traditions to make his case for a more relaxed balance of controls on creative property.

If it were up to me, I would repeal the Sonny Bono Act of 1998, which extended copyright terms to 95 years, and return to the English copyright ruling of 1774 which protected content for 21 years.  Why not let struggling independent filmmakers use content that is at least 21 years old for new creative works that bring cultural benefit to society?  Or perhaps artists could be legally obligated to share a small percentage of their profits with the creators of material they sample rather than owe a huge licensing fee that they will not likely make back in profits?

I would go further than Lessig and call out corporate power in the U.S. more pointedly.  Corporate power has become highly concentrated and is impeding a healthy democracy in a number of different ways from over-influencing the outcomes of elections (think Citizens United) to asserting control of culture through long terms of ownership.  If I wrote a brilliant book or song I think I should have the right to profit from it for a couple decades, but after that I believe my work is a gift to my society (if it is still being used) and becomes a part of my culture.  I don’t see the world in dollars and cents.  It is a culture’s acceptance of a work that gives it value and that cannot always be monetized.  I agree with Lessig that creators don’t live in a vacuum, everyone borrows from the culture in which she is immersed; therefore, creative products ought to be released to the culture from which they spring for the next generation to take forward in the production of new works after the creator has had some time to directly benefit.

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