While drinking beer with a few friends at a picnic over the holiday weekend, I got into a heated discussion about copyright, of all things (we’re not a Katie/Tom/Brad/Angelina gossip kinda crowd). Another guest who works in theater rights management was telling tales of musical productions that tried to alter the book in some way (either with or without knowledge that it was strictly against the rules)—song order changed, new choreography added, or unsanctioned casting changes made. Many of the anecdotes sounded like great production ideas, though. How about Grease with an all-girl cast? West Side Story restaged to represent present-day gang warfare and culture in L.A. Neither would be possible: Thou can rip off Romeo and Juliet, but thou shalt not mess with West Side Story until it enters the public domain many, many years from now.
I’m a big supporter of sharing intellectual property for mutual benefit and am a cheerleader for the efforts of the folks at Creative Commons, an organization that has worked hard to streamline the challenges of rights management in our digital world for authors who want to share their work more liberally than default copyright law allows. In intellectual property debates, even though I’m on the left side of the battlefield, I like to think I maintain a healthy respect for those who think differently about ownership of ideas. In real life, I definitely respect their legal right to keep their intellectual property out of my creative hands, though it often depresses me when they tell me why this is the route they have chosen. The need to make a living is one thing, but when we’re talking about creative work, the situation is rarely “If I download the Grey Album, I don’t need to buy the Beatles’s White Album or Jay-Z’s Black Album“. More than likely, one fuels the collection of all three.
Still, that’s just one example, and maybe you have a sample case that would push the debate in the other direction. It wouldn’t surprise me. It’s a complex intellectual/philosophical issue that’s made murkier by the legal-ease that shrouds it and the economic demands of living in a capitalist society.
In these theater cases, I understand the need to protect the author’s original intent. After all, you don’t want people buying tickets to Phantom of the Opera expecting Andrew Lloyd’s smash hit and getting some avant-garde mash-up instead. But not allowing the production altogether, as opposed to making clear rules about credit and disclosure seems to be a baby with the bathwater solution. We live in cultural hyper-drive and a new twist or a wink of post-modern irony is often how we digest our world, yet the length of time a creative work is protected from such reinterpretation has only increased over the years. Society being one big, constantly renegotiated contract, are our rules in this matter in the best interest of our collective culture?
The theater rights manager at the party was a “those are the rules, pay what you owe us” sort of guy by profession, and I backed off not wanting to ruin a social event, but for me the whole conversation begged an artistic/intellectual question of growing importance: how much do we lose as a society while we wait for public domain access to creative work?