Tuesday, July 5, 2011

RESPONSE: Copyright or Wrong pt. 2 - Remix vs. Adaptation

Isaac raises some excellent points in his response to the open letter from Nick Olivero, whose show got taken down by copyright lawyers after he violated his license to mount a production of Little Shop of Horrors (my initial take here).

I spent my ride to work thinking about Isaac's response because I am of two minds about it.

So, here's the valid point Isaac raises:

I think there is a difference between art that legitimately creates something new out of borrowed fragments of other work and work that simply seeks to "improve" on some work by changing the text. And because these things are grey, I think our law should try to reflect that, even if that means leaving some stuff up to judges.

So far as I can tell, an artist should be free to layer an interpretation over the text (his example: "a radical resetting of Death of a Salesman on the moon"), or to radically depart from the text (his example: "Girl Talk-- the remixiest of all remix art-- doesn't include anything original, but arranges the fragmented source materials in innovative and illuminating ways, often distorting them (speeding them up, changing pitches etc.) to make them fit. The result is something new. ").

The line that made me stop was: "[T]his is a production that billed itself as Little Shop of Horrors and wasn't." The implication being, I suppose, that if Olivero had titled his production "A Small Store-front of Mysteries" there might not have been a problem?

So, here's where I agree: an author does have a right to transparency when his/her work is being reused, so that audiences don't think they've seen the original work.

My issue is that it's difficult to untangle when a project is an interpretation, a remix, or not-remixed/interpreted-enough-to-be-new.

For instance: my friend once did an interpretation of Company where all the characters would be male. In his request for licensing, he got permission to change pronouns where necessary to adjust to changes in gender. He did not disclose that ALL the characters would be male, however, and therefore Stephen Sondheim threatened our university with a lawsuit, and my friend was forced to write a letter of apology.

The changes proposed to the text were "she" to "he." You can't say that it was a "new" work, nor can you say that it's an interpretation that leaves the text intact -- well, it leaves most of the text intact. It just makes very small changes to the text. Which Stephen Sondheim believes makes the show not only not Company, but not allowed to be produced.

Or how about this: a playwright has multiple published versions of a play. You take the different versions of the text and synthesize them in to create a text that you think best captures the original intentions of the text. I was once in a production of The Hobbit that did that from two playwrights' versions of the text. And I think we've all been in productions of Shakespeare that does that with the folios. That to me is "adaptation" not "remix", but the idea that you shouldn't be able to do it unless the author agrees strikes me as a bad idea.

If there was a clear white line between "remixing" the text and "adapting" the text -- when the use of the playwright's text is similar enough to not justify the remix, and when the remix has become a creature of its own -- then it would be easier.


isaac butler said...

Arg! I posted a response to this and it got eaten. So let me try a quickee response.

Your COMPANY example is actually the opposite of what was done here. The director got permission to change the text (adaptation) and then made casting choices (interpretation) that Sondheim came down against.As I think the casting choices are interpretive ones, I actually think Sondheim is entirely in the wrong. Similarly, if Little Shop got closed down because Seymour was a tattooed bruiser and not a nerd, I'd think Olivero was in the right.

The question is whether someone can change the text without creating something new and without authorial permission. It's hard for me to see this as a case of out of control copyright protection.

Also, the real issue here is that copyright exists for too long. We're trying to find all these innovative ways around a more simple problem. If copyright lasted the life of the creator OR 30 years (whichever was less) than by the time something was in the zeitgeist enough to warrant creative adapting, it'd likely be possible to creatively adapt it.

BTW: my point about the title was merely that changing the title sends a clear signal that your intent is to create something new. Keeping the title the same sends the opposite signal.

CultureFuture said...

Sorry the internet chewed up your response.

Regarding Company: the permission was removed when Sondheim realized what was going on. The actual scale of the textual changes were minuscule, and were difficult to separate from the interpretive choices.

I agree that the question is whether someone can change text without creating something new and without authorial permission. The first part of that question is hard to define: how much change becomes something new, and how much change is still materially the same?

With the title, you're right that the signal is clear. But suppose Boxcar's show had been titled as Little Shop of Horrors: A Radically Reimagined Show. Would that be enough to flag that the show, while still being Little Shop of Horrors, is being reimagined to be something new?

But I do agree with you 100% that if copyright was shorter (I would go back to the original copyright span of 7 + 7 year extension, but that's numbers), the disagreement would be moot. You're right that the larger issue is that your ability to be irreverent and tasteless with pre-existing cultural material is locked up for decades.