In academia, appropriation through citation is the norm. Wide berth is given borrowing to advance the broader arts and sciences. Shakespeare borrowed liberally from passion plays and referenced works of contemporary dramatists. Culture itself is built on the propagation of ideas, as evolution is driven by the instinct to propagate species. How odd that in the 20th Century we granted proprietary rights to most of our greatest artistic achievements to corporate entities that are effectively eternal!
Copyrights for virtually all major cinematic, audio and new media works since 1940 have been extended far beyond any historic notion of control has ever been advanced. In fact, lobbyists have not only been successful delaying lawful expiration of copyrights, they’ve also managed to write in draconian punishments for violation, explicitly designed to ruin any successful or significant appropriations. While this seems the norm to us, it should be recognized for what i is: a foolish, short sighted historic aberration and a sell out of Western ideals by a single generation of shallow politicians. It’s inevitable outcome will be to diminish or disappear the works of many of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
The simple reality: appropriation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but the primary vehicle for moving ideas. In some respects, even full-on piracy helps information permeate our world. It’s a secondary channel to infect the poor and the cheap. How many toys, CDs, movies and games would not have become cultural phenomenon without it? The common assumption driving the effort to stymie appropriation is that every reference or copy made is a lost sale in a zero-sum game. This is false on every level. First and foremost, it’s not a zero sum game: the pie is ever-growing as globalization spreads markets and culture, as population grows, as life spans increase. Second, every viewer or consumer of media products is not necessarily a buyer. These tactics are predicated on the notion that everyone will first discover a title, and subsequently be so captivated that they have to buy or rent it. This discounts the reality that most people lack the time or money to buy into every fad.
Eliminating cultural buzz with heavy-handed laws and gestapo tactics accomplishes many things: it alienates audiences and the public, it limits the number of unknown artists who can advance to the next level, and it potentially buries rich, deep content that doesn’t fit into easy pigeon holes or lacks mass-market appeal and name recognition at the time of release. It pretty much eliminates the potential for “sleeper” artists and products. But it does nothing to protect the artist or the label’s real interests, or advance their true agenda. So, in the 20th century, corporations were wildly successful in destroying long term value through greed, for artists and shareholders alike.
There is a traditional prejudice against film, video and broadcast television release, relative to more classical forms of authorship. The assumption is that a movie cannot be as rich as a book, or a documentary cannot compare to a research paper. While network TV movies and newscasts do seem to be proof of this concept, that perspective misses the broader market of work, both original and derivative, that transcend their conventional counterparts.
A critical distinction that should be drawn is that many new media and electronic arts are collaborative productions, heavily researched and carefully crafted by teams of professionals, while most written works are singular in vision. While many novels or papers represent years of an authors life, documentaries and films are created in a matter of months. Look closer: if you string the hours of each member of a production team together, man-hours quickly add up to man-years. While we can dismiss many made-for-TV movies, the fact is that a 20 minute piece on a news-magazine show like 60 Minutes might require many hours more research, travel and assembly than any magazine article. A film dramatization of a novel not only requires the time of the actors and crew, but also a conscious effort by writers to distill narrative, dialog, and emotional subtext to its primal essence.
The potential for communication of emotional content in new media is enormous, possibly greater than prior forms. Adding motion and sound to images and words makes it easier to speak across barriers of language and culture. Not only can our stories be sold to other people with foreign language dubs or subtitles, our cultures are exchanged in the process. While different people may react differently to the same story due to cultural context, feelings and emotions are universal. The insights we bring to foreign films and which foreigners bring to ours are keys to understanding and healing gaps. Literature, art, religion, and theater, for all their powers, have failed miserably in connecting disparate peoples without bloodshed. We have potential for a fresh start because richly connected new media can provide deeper context and understanding to all sides.