I have a conspiracy theory that there is a common reason why the most recent Superman, Star Trek and Muppets films are all mediocre offerings at best, and the reason is that there are problems with copyright law. Please watch the following educational Youtube video, and continue reading below.
The problem with copyright is that it only allows for “corporate fan-fiction”
We all like to see old stories re-told. That’s just part of the human experience—taking ideas, building on them, and combining them with other ones in interesting ways. A large proportion of our culture could be described in this way. There are very few truly novel ideas out there.
The reason that you see Superman, Star Trek and Muppets re-makes at the movies is because the ideas that they’re based on still have some mileage left in them. We, as a culture, still want fresh new stories with Kermit the Frog, James Kirk or Clark Kent, and the underlying premisses and characters are still engaging enough that people will pay good money to see them.
To put this in other terms, humans really like fan-fiction. I’m not using the term in a derogatory way. Fan-fiction can be pretty awesome. (There is, of course bad fan-fiction too.) I’m just saying that we should include the Star Trek reboot in what we count as fan-fiction, since it’s a re-hashed creative work based on another artist’s original work.
It’s well-funded fan-fiction. It’s licensed fan-fiction. But it’s fan-fiction, nonetheless.
My theory is that we have “corporate fan-fiction” that tends toward suckiness because of the unwillingness of large movie studios to take the risk of doing something interesting with their work, combined with the lack of creative competition that extremely long periods of copyright affords them. This is why we’ll probably never see a black actor play Superman on the big screen. (Well, that and systemic racism.) This is also why we just had a re-make of Star Trek II (complete with a white-washed Khan).
Only one company owns the rights to make Superman, so there’s no competing studio making a more creative Superman film. Hence they can get away with selling us another film with the same premiss and the same villain and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes is a character from a series of books that are now squarely in the Public Domain and there’s a whole industry of Sherlock Holmes re-imaginings. There’s a chapter in This Is How You Die that is Sherlock Holmes fan-fiction. The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis is, tangentally, Sherlock Holmes fan-fiction. (Don’t believe me? Read paragraph 2 of chapter 1.)
Moving from the written word to the screen, you can see Iron Man play Sherlock Holmes, then you can turn on the BBC and watch white Khan play Sherlock Holmes, then you can see (an even whiter) Lt. Cdr. Data play Sherlock Holmes, and to finish it off, on CBS there’s a Sherlock Holmes with a gender-swapped Watson, which I haven’t seen but I’ve heard is pretty good.
Brent Spiner as Data as Sherlock is pretty awful, I have to admit. But the nice thing about Sherlock Holmes is that if you don’t care for one version, you can move on to another one, and there are enough Sherlock Holmeses out there that one of them will likely strike your fancy.
The point is, after a certain point, copyright law stops encouraging creativity and starts stifling it, and when a creative work enters the Public Domain, brand new opportunities open up around it—not just downloading the original from Project Gutenberg, but taking the source material, re-mixing it, and telling a new story based on an old theme.
So the question becomes, what is entering the Public Domain these days?
Copyright law in Canada
The above video gives a very US-centric view of copyright law, but copyright law varies from country to country. As the video states, in 1998, US copyright was extended from 50 to 70 years after the death of the artist. The same thing happened in the UK in 1995. This never happened in Canada. In Canada, a creative work falls into the Public Domain only 50 years after the artist dies.
I was talking to my colleagues at work about this today, and thought to myself, Can I think of any authors that died 50 years ago? And I answered myself: Yes, yes I can.
C. S. Lewis died in 1963, hence his books are now in the Public Domain in Canada
Do you know what this means? First of all, it means that if you’re in Canada, contact me and I will email you ebooks of the complete Chronicles of Narnia, AND IT WILL BE COMPLETELY LEGAL. Or actually, here’s a link to Project Gutenberg Canada. You can get it for yourself there. (This is very exciting for me. Anyone who knew me in high school will be able to attest to how much of a C. S. Lewis nerd I was. This guy is probably the reason why I ended up with two degrees in philosophy.)
It also means that if you are a producer at a Canadian TV network, and you are so inclined, you can produce your own Narnia-based fan-fiction show, and sell it in Canada. And it’s in the Public Domain, so you can go any direction with the source material that you like, without consulting Disney, the publisher or C. S. Lewis’ estate.
No one can stop you from writing a story about a queer Muslim girl who goes to Narnia. You could make it a murder mystery with a gender-swapped Anne of Green Gables (“man of Green Gables”) who murders Mister Darcy in the land of Calormen. Sherlock Holmes would solve the case of course.
There’s a million creative angles that will never be explored by Disney. Why do the Pevensies have to be white and British? Could Aslan be a villain? What happened with the magic rings at the end of The Last Battle? CBC TV producers—contact me. I have ideas!
Any Canadian can make a gritty reboot of those bloodless and uninteresting Narnia films that Disney made a few years ago. If you do it in Canada, you don’t need Disney’s permission. (Note that the Disney Narnia films are still under copyright—it’s their source material, the books, that are in the Public Domain, and only in Canada, so you’d have to hold off for 20 years before bringing it to the US or UK market.)
The fact that Canadian copyright laws are different gives us creative opportunities that Americans and British people don’t have, and I think that by even further loosening up copyright laws here, Canada could become a world leader in producing new creative work.
My proposed copyright reform
Right now, Canada has a 20-year head start on Public Domain content as compared to the US and the UK. This is awesome. This is why all my Canadian readers are downloading The Magician’s Nephew to your e-readers as we speak, I’m sure.
Unfortunately, anyone who’s reading this from the US or the UK is out of luck. For the next twenty years, you’ll have to pay for stuff we can download in Canada for free. I’m not saying this (just) out of a sense of smug superiority. I’m saying this out of a genuine fear of creeping copyright law. I would love to see a whole bunch of Americans get really upset about the fact that I can download The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for free and they can’t, because a popular backlash against copyright extensions in the States might remove a bit of pressure for Canadian law to conform to the American and British standard of life + 70 years.
But do you know what would be even better? Rolling back copyright law in Canada to something like the 1710 Statute of Anne would be even better.
Like the video says, Star Wars: A New Hope was made in 1977, so it would be in the Public Domain by now. We could have different studios making competing Star Wars films. Who knows? The impending let-down that will be the upcoming Disney Star Wars films could even be avoided by a Canadian market where creative works enter the Public Domain in a reasonable amount of time.
Cross-posted to: https://medium.com/moral-and-political-philosophy/6bd11a437296