Dead Authors' Estates Preventing Even The Slightest Revisions To Works

from the creativity-not-allowed dept

Justin Levine points us to the news that a revival of Ira Levin’s famous play Deathtrap has been canceled because Levin’s estate doesn’t approve of very slight modifications in the play — including one character disrobing and showing his naked rear for about 30 seconds, as well as this version of the play making it clear that a relationship between two males was a gay relationship (something not explicitly stated in the original, though many other interpretations have assumed the same thing). Either way, after the estate demanded changes to the staging, the LA Gay & Lesbian Center who was putting it on decided to cancel the show altogether, rather than having the estate give them creative notes.

Now, this may be entirely legal, but does that make it reasonable? One of the great things about plays is seeing how different companies interpret them — sometimes in very different and creative ways. It seems overly controlling and silly to seek to block certain showings because they don’t conform to the way the estate wants the play performed.

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Thomas Babington Macauley already warned us in his 1841 speech

One of the most instructive, interesting, and delightful books in our language is Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Now it is well known that Boswell’s eldest son considered this book, considered the whole relation of Boswell to Johnson, as a blot in the escutcheon of the family. He thought, not perhaps altogether without reason, that his father had exhibited himself in a ludicrous and degrading light. And thus he became so sore and irritable that at last he could not bear to hear the Life of Johnson mentioned. Suppose that the law had been what my honourable and learned friend wishes to make it. Suppose that the copyright of Boswell’s Life of Johnson had belonged, as it well might, during sixty years, to Boswell’s eldest son. What would have been the consequence? An unadulterated copy of the finest biographical work in the world would have been as scarce as the first edition of Camden’s Britannia.

(Still, his best prediction is this: And you will find that, in attempting to impose unreasonable restraints on the reprinting of the works of the dead, you have, to a great extent, annulled those restraints which now prevent men from pillaging and defrauding the living.)

Still some fucking morons thought extending the duration of copyright to after the death of the artist was a good idea.


Re: Re: Thomas Babington Macauley already warned us in his 1841 speech

well obviously they took into account the coming zombie apocalyps, once the formerly dead writer/author/musician is zombiefied, he’ll have a proper incentive to create more content. Without afterlife IP rights he’d be doomed to eating brains like all the rest of us…


Re: Re:

I’ve been in a few plays, and there are always little modifications. Lines — or whole scenes — are omitted or rearranged; character concepts are altered a little or a lot; stage directions are treated as suggestions at best; with props and costumes, anything goes. Shakespeare is usually performed as written, but just try doing “Julius Caesar” exactly according to script– some crucial lines make no sense!

I think making the relationship in “Deathtrap” explicitly gay is ham-handed, especially since it’s covert in the context of the story, but the Levin estate is being puritanical. It serves them right — and the rest of us us poorly — if the play fades further into obscurity.


Re: Re:

I’m going to assume you don’t know anything about live theater.

Modifications are the norm. I’ve watched Hamlet 5 times in the past few years and each time it was presented in it’s own original ways.

Honestly to me, you might as well be asking “Why make these ‘modifications’ to fries? What need is there to add ketchup, cheese, spices, garlic…” I hope you get the point.

dennis deemssays:

Re: Re: Why make these "modifications"?

In a broad sense, plays generally attempt to convince the audience that the action they are witnessing is actually occurring — that the characters are real people. To accomplish this, the director and the actors bring a whole lot more to the stage than just the words that are written in the script. A script doesn’t usually contain indications of a characters’ every move and gesture, and rarely gives more than the most salient of the characters’ physical interactions. The degree of information provided varies, of course; at some point it became the fashion to collate the stage manager’s notes into the published script, so that very explicit designations of the exact spot each character is standing or sitting sometimes appears. But this is the blocking that was worked out in the original production by the director and the actors, in far more detail than the playwright would have supplied, and it’s more often than not a burden to new productions because the arrangement of their stage set is likely to be quite different. But even in this sort of script you’re not going to find a notation every time a character might heave a sigh, bite their lip, take a drink or run their fingers through their hair. In sum, the difference between the script as written and the play in performance is substantial.


I’m going to take a wild guess and say that this is a request that was refused due to the moral/political stance of the estate opposing the nature of the changes, rather than them being opposed to the breadth or number of changes.

Now, in this sense it opens up an interesting dilemma with this kind of issue. If Levin had intended that the characters were actually gay but was unable to make it explicit due to the social and political climate of the time he wrote it, it’s likely that he’d have approved of the changes. If so, the estate is actually being allowed to block the author’s intent rather than actually protect him in any way…

Of course, I might be completely wrong, but we will never know (unless Levin has some comment on this type of situation made before his death I’m not aware of). But, if I’m correct, this could be one of the more objectionable consequences of post-mortem copyright. Since corporations and the like will be often driven to profit as much from a work as possible rather than consider artistic merits, they could block uses that the author would have applauded in case they reduce the bottom line somewhere. Another defeat for the artstic argument for copyright being required.


Re: Re:

Oddly, the interest of plays and things may be exactly in those fraught situations where you have to say it covertly. That gives spark andf tension and a real story. It was written in Granta in 1992 that in the (free) West “there is nothing left for authors to write about”. Because there is no tragedy and nothing needs fixing.
Perhaps it is different now.


If I’m ever famous I’m gonna make sure my dead self becomes public domain. Can’t those imbeciles see that they are negating further exposure? Recent movies reviewed Shakespeare and fairytales to modify them and produce new and interesting stuff which in turn will keep them alive. Do we really care if the Hamlets shown today have slight adaptations? Does it kill any of the brilliance of the originals?

It’s about time we put the copyrights of the dead artists where they belong to: the public domain.


Re: Re:

If I’m ever famous I’m gonna make sure my dead self becomes public domain.

I don’t know about making my body public domain, but if there is anything that I have created over the many years I’ve been here that isn’t already under public domain (a majority of it is either public domain or open source,) I am on record now in saying that everything I have created that isn’t public domain should be released to the public domain.


As per your article the work was being presented by ” LA Gay & Lesbian Center”.

We can debate the morality of this, and it has been debated by people more knowledgeable and profound than anyone on this blog, but to the thinking of a large part of religion you have provided sufficient proof that what is really being discussed is moral degradation.

If you do not understand the implications of that then you have to go no further than today’s world news headlines to see what happens in other parts of the world when such perversions occur.


Re: Re:

“If you do not understand the implications of that then you have to go no further than today’s world news headlines to see what happens in other parts of the world when such perversions occur.”

I absolutely agree; religious bigotry keeps whole societies stuck in the bronze age, foments violence and condones murder all over the “holy land”, blights the lives of countless–

Wait… those are the perversions you’re talking about, right?


Re: Re:

Cultural standards are not morals.

It’s immoral to imply that society or morals are being degraded because people don’t fall in step with your personal cultural definitions.

Society as a whole suffers when you force your cultural standards on another person for no other reason than “I don’t like you, that’s why”

If you can give me a reason beyond religion as to why you have a problem with this gay and lesbian center then have at it.

I find ugly, stupid and retarded people having sex offensive and they probably negatively effect society by producing more ugly, stupid and retarded people in this world.

Can you come up with a reason how gays and lesbians negatively effect society and develop an argument without using religion as your crutch?


Re: Re:

…but to the thinking of a large part of religion you have provided sufficient proof that what is really being discussed is moral degradation.

Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t most religions include “tolerance” as a part of their teachings?

And as a side note, based on my personal interactions with people who describe themselves as “religious”, the words “thinking” and “sufficient proof” have much less importance then the word “faith” does to them.

The eejitsays:

Re: Re:

You mean like the “moral degradation” of children by the Roman Catholic Church, and a clergy that is so disconnected from its laity that it is fighting a losing battle?

You mean “moral degradation” like the Islamic extremists who think that you should be killed, raped and pillaged for not being of their brand of Islamic faith?

You mean “moral degradation” like the extremist Jews in Israel who think it’s acceptable to say that you can rape Arabs because they’re not Jews?

Come back to me when you have a valid point that isn’t, “I’m more orally superior to you because I have a faith and you disagree with me.”


Maybe reasonable

Reasonable? Depends. Was there some kind of a contract that said that all performances will adhere to the letter of the play? If people chose to accept the contract, they have to abide by it. If so, any intentional deviation would make the result a derivative work. Sounds too bad? Don’t make such contracts.


This happens a lot when theatres want to remove foul language from a play and the playwright refuses. Theatres often just choose to not produce the play.

In the theatre world everyone is taught that the playwright is god, and everyone must bend to the playwright’s will.

As playwright, I think it’s a big joke. It basically says nobody else is allowed to be creative or contribute to the piece, which goes against the whole process of producing a play. Who’s to say the changes won’t improve the production? One presumes the director and theatre companies knows their audience well enough to justify the changes, which seems to be the case here.

It’s really just the playwright trying to maintain their stature in a collaborative medium. It’s all ego, and it’s especially perverted when it’s the estate and not the playwright themselves that are making demands.

Another reason why we need copyright reform so more works can return to the public domain.


Not minor changes

I have to say I agree with the Levin estate on this one. The author purposely did not want to hit audiences over the head with the gay subplot. Obviously, that wasn’t enough for the LA Gay & Lesbian Center which wanted to remove all doubt. And then because it couldn’t do what it wanted, it canceled the production. The Center can do its production when the play goes into the public domain 70 or so years from now.


Re: Re: Not minor changes

“The author purposely did not want to hit audiences over the head with the gay subplot.”

Do you have a citation for that? Unless Levin specifically said that, or he left explicit instructions to that aim, you don’t know that at all. It could be just as likely that he wanted to go further in his original production but couldn’t because the audiences of the time wouldn’t have accepted it.

“The Center can do its production when the play goes into the public domain 70 or so years from now.”

…so, Levin’s wishes are OK to ignore after 70 years? What would change about them between now and the time copyright expires? Why is it moral to change them then but not now, other than an arbitrary limit that allows someone else to temporarily make his decisions for him?


why plays aren't changed

I was curious about exactly this question awhile back: Why can’t directors change (non-PD) plays? A friend who’s a director said it’s to ensure that theatergoers see the play they bought tickets to see. Essentially, it’s a trade mark-like issue. If you want to see Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, you should be shown his Deathtrap, not another person’s. While I am highly in favor of directors interpreting works, I do appreciate this bit of consumer protection.

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