Did you know that there’s a good version of “Star Wars Episode 1”? It’s called “The Phantom Edit,” and it was put together by a fan with a knack for editing film. The so-called Phantom editor tightened up some of the action sequences, cut out a lot of Jar Jar’s dumb antics and released his much-improved fan edit on the Internet.
Fan edits like this one have always existed in the fuzzy gray area of what constitutes copyright infringement, but LucasArts is aware of “The Phantom Edit’s” existence and hasn’t taken any legal action against it — a good gesture for building a fandom that can add their own value to a creative work. Now try to imagine a Disney-owned LucasArts doing the same with its new fandom. Yeah, I can’t imagine it either.
Disney has a history of going to great lengths to protect its copyrighted properties. In 1998, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Act, which extended copyright terms to 70 years after the author’s death. Before the act was passed, copyright terms were soon to expire, so media groups like the MPAA, RIAA and Disney began lobbying Congress to extend the terms 20 years (Disney spent an estimated $800,000 on campaign contributions alone), and it worked.
In fact, the Sonny Bono Act was the eleventh time in 40 years that Congress had extended copyrights and prevented works from entering the public domain. Disney, owner of many very old movies that are still profitable, has obvious incentive to keep its copyrights alive, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney tries lobbying again in 2018 when the Sonny Bono Act runs out, and every 20 years after that.
I always find it curious that American copyrights are extended past the lifetime of the author at all, let alone 70 years past. It comes down to a question of what copyright is supposed to do. If the purpose is to protect authors and encourage creativity and innovation, a posthumous copyright is overkill, to say the least.
A copyright gives a creator incentive to create something by ensuring that others won’t take away his audience and income with their own versions of his work. If incentivizing creativity is the goal, a copyright need only exist as long as the work is profitable to the original author.
On the other hand, Disney seems to view copyright not so much as a way to encourage creativity, but as a way to protect its revenues. Extending the copyright on “Cinderella” didn’t benefit Walt Disney at all, and I can’t honestly believe that a modern filmmaker or writer would decide a project was worth creating because he was waiting for his estate to be guaranteed 70 years of profits instead of 50.
The fact that there is any protection whatsoever after the author’s death means that copyright law is protecting people who aren’t the original creators, like estates and corporations that happen to own some of those extraordinarily rare works that continue to be popular and profitable decades after being published.
In addition to protecting estates, I would argue that our overextended copyright is actually detrimental to modern creators. TV characters almost never sing “Happy Birthday” because that song is copyrighted, and it won’t enter public domain until 2030 (unless copyrights are extended again).
Until 2038, musicians and filmmakers can’t record their own versions of George Gershwin’s classic “Rhapsody in Blue,” or even use passages from it, without paying royalties to the Gershwin estate.
Eric Eldred, an Internet-based publisher, actually went all the way to the Supreme Court (and lost) in Eldred v. Ashcroft over his inability to publish remixed versions of Robert Frost poems on his noncommercial website, The Eldritch Press. Ironically, Disney’s lobbying is preventing others from following its own brilliant model of retooling classics for a new generation in a new medium.
It’s easier than ever to access and share creativity and to create something, even for a casual hobbyist, but more difficult (and less legal) than ever to draw from the works of others. This points to a larger problem with our model of copyright: It wasn’t prepared for the information age.
Brian Hampel is a senior in architecture. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.