15 September 2011

A bad motivator

For the last couple of weeks there has been a great disturbance on the Internet, as if millions of geeks suddenly cried out in terror. I'm talking about the latest batch of changes George Lucas has made to his Star Wars movies, this time on the occasion of their blu-ray release. The long story short here is that ever since the "special edition" releases of the 1990s, Lucas has been altering the original three Star Wars films; sometimes substantially, with new scenes and actors swapped in digitally; sometimes trivially, with newer visual effects and bleeps and farts. This isn't a bad thing in theory—directors' cuts are usually greeted as definitive versions, and many artists can't resist the urge to go back and tweak their earlier work. (Walt Whitman added poems to, subtracted poems from, and generally rewrote poems in every new edition of Leaves of Grass in his lifetime.)

But in the case of Lucas the changes to the original have been so awful, and the memories he's tinkering with are held so dear, that it seems a kind of spite is driving him at this point. I'm not going to list the details of all the alterations here (that's what Google's for), but suffice it to say, it's understandable that people might want to have available the original version of a film (and here I'm talking about the first, 1977 Star Wars) that holds such a central place in the history of film and society. But Lucas says no; this is his vision, you get it all—all retrofitted to mesh with the awful prequels—or you get nothing.

If the original film—now thirty-five years old—had been released under the original fourteen year copyright term (renewable once), this would all be moot. Criterion would be free to release a restored original version with commentary by historians. Wal-mart could release a budget version with all the incest taken out. And Lucas? Lucas would still be free to alter his films in any way he wanted to. He could stick Jar-Jar into every damn frame if he liked and all of the fans who valued his intent over their childhood memories (there must be at least four or five of them) would be free to purchase these enhanced versions. The point is, Art with a captial A would be served and Commerce with a capital ¢ would be served as well.

There are rights holders like Lucas whose bad dealings with the art they own comes from an honest belief that they're doing what's right. Then there are rights holders like Disney, who are motivated entirely by their desire to monetize their holdings as efficiently as possible. The famed "Disney Vault"—the practice of Disney of bringing properties in and out of print in cycles—is a good example of this. They aren't doing this to benefit their films or their audience—they're just making sure their products are not in competition with each other. Disney animation from the 30's, 40's, and 50's is central to our cultural heritage, but we're kept from it, not by the artists who actually produced it (they're all gone) but by a marketing ploy. Similarly, Disney gets to remove any scenes or elements form its films that might affect their salability.

It's not just pop culture that suffers from the heavy hand of rights holders: no less a luminary than James Joyce has also been affected. The current executor of this seminal Modernist, so central to world literature, is the artist's grandson, Stephen Joyce. Under the name of protecting his grandfather's legacy, the younger Joyce has aggressively hindered access to the artist's letters: bringing suit (or threatening) against biographers and scholars whose work he deems harmful, prohibiting public performances of his grandfather's work, destroying letters by Joyce's daughter, and hoarding unpublished writings. He even said no to Kate Bush using Molly's soliloquy in a song. Thankfully, the works of Joyce are about to enter the Public Domain—at the end of this year, only sixty years later than they should have.

Afterword: In the article on Joyce linked above, the author writes: "It is understandable and reasonable that the heirs of an author [...] would gain a financial benefit for a certain time from that author’s work, in the same way that a descendant who has been left a farm or a house is entitled to a financial gain from it." I note this because I think it's a fallacy that's often made to justify the passing of copyright to one's heirs. The correct analogy would be that as a farmer may leave his farm and equipment to the next generation, so too an author may bequeath to their heirs their own tools of production: pens, paper, notes, typewriter or computer. An analog to copyright for the farmer would be if the farmer's heirs continued to receive residuals on crops produced many decades before.

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