Copyleft and the 110th
by Nancy Scola, Sat Dec 23, 2006 at 07:42:01 AM EST
It's probably best to warn you now that I have a lot of ideas stored up about the way things oughta be. And that I'll be unloading them on you over the next few weekends until I get them out of my system. Sorry about that. Next up is copyright.
The problem with the current copyright debate is that the argument for tight restrictions on the creative content is so easy to make. It's on the model of "you wouldn't walk into Tower Records and steal a CD, now would you? Hmm?" That's a story that's compelling in its simplicity and moral clarity. And the Motion Picture Association (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) -- with their very big footprint on Capitol Hill -- have the chance to repeat that basic story again and again. Soon, there's not much room in the heads of legislators and staff for other ways of thinking about copyright.
But the challenge of dealing with the licensing of creative content
isn't all that black and white, of course. Consider this, if you
might. Documentary films are one of my favorite things in the whole
world. I'm intrigued by the idea that non-fiction film has a power
to show, rather than tell, why progressive ideas are the
way to go. What docs are so great at is telling rich, compelling
stories. And there's much power in that because, of course, it's
through stories that we learn much of what we know about the world.
With that in mind, yesterday morning I started pulling together
a list of docs that I might be able to propose as a sort of a progressive
non-fiction film "watch list" somewhere down the road.
A natural candidate for the list is Eyes on the Prize, a 14-part series on the American civil rights years from 1954 to 1965, from the early resistance to segregation through Martin Luther King's last years.
Well, to be honest, I'm going on faith that Eyes is a natural fit. I've never seen it. That's because when the filmmakers were assembling the doc, they were so struggling to just get by that they forwent the ideal but expensive "worldwide rights in perpetuity" and paid instead for cheaper but more restrictive terms -- limited-time use, and restrictions on via what formats the finished series could be distributed. As some of those terms have expired since its first-run in the late eighties and early nineties, it's quite tough to even see Eyes today. This prized piece of American cultural history can't legally be shown on TV or sold new. You can't get it on DVD through Netflix or anywhere else. Used non-bootlegged VHS tapes go for about $1300 online.
Eyes on the Prize is a good example of what's tough about making documentaries. There's a real problem now with non-fiction filmmakers having to license the pop-culture that shows up while they're shooting. For example, go here for what "Mad Hot Ballroom" had to go through to clear the music in the film, including the "Rocky" ring tone that plays on a woman's cell phone for six seconds. And then there's the Smithsonian's deal with Showtime that GAO says is stymying the efforts of some independent filmmakers to use footage from their archives.
As they say, history is written by the keepers of creative content
rights. Okay, I just made that up. But what's true is that our current
regime of content-control is structured to benefit centralized authority,
and not the rest of us in the trenches. That won't do. The good
news on this is that we do have champions on the Hill on these issues.
Should copyright and the control of creative content come up in
the 110th Congress, look to Rep.
Rick Boucher of southwest Virginia and Rep.
Zoe Lofgren of northern California to take the lead. Boucher in particular will likely reintroduce his Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act -- in Boucher's words, an attempt to "restore the historical balance in copyright law."
Update [2006-12-23 15:7:20 by Nancy Scola]: Through a grant from the Ford Foundation and the Gilder Foundation, Eyes on the Prize was re-run and issued on DVD by PBS is fall. See more in the comments.