Copyright Law Stifling Free Speech And Artistic Criticism

from the yet-again dept

Pacific Standard Magazine has a really great article by Noah Berlatsky, looking at how copyright is stifling artistic criticism. Much of it focuses on a recent paper by John Tehranian, whom we've written about before. The paper is called Dangerous Undertakings: Sacred Texts and Copyright's Myth of Aesthetic Neutrality -- and focuses on how aesthetic judgments about the value of works almost always applies in copyright cases, which is a bit dangerous when it comes to art, criticism and free speech. Berlatsky's piece focuses on the famous case of The Wind Done Gone, the famous "unauthorized retelling" of Gone With The Wind from the perspective of another character. The lower court said it was infringing, and the appeals court overturned it -- but both were based, at least in part, on aesthetics, rather than underlying legal issues:
In its decision, the court pointed in particular to the fact that Scarlett and Mammy died in The Wind Done Gone as evidence that the sequel harmed the original. In financial terms, this objection doesn’t make much sense—as Tehranian points out, Kirk and Spock died in the Star Trek series at various points, and no one had any trouble bringing them back to life when needed. But the court’s objection does make sense if Gone With the Wind is viewed as inviolable, if any tarnishing of it is seen as illegitimate. “Thus, it is not whether the work is parody or sequel that truly appears to drive the court’s decision;” Tehranian concludes, “it is destruction of the work’s romanticism—a romanticism that is grounded in a distinctly whitewashed vision of the antebellum.”

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals eventually reversed the lower court. But aesthetics were involved in that decision as well. The appeals court based its decision on the estimation that Gone With the Wind was not an inviolable classic, but was instead a flawed and indeed racist work. The court particularly singled out the fact that the Mitchell estate had prevented authorized sequels from discussing homosexuality or miscegenation. The Mitchell estate was trying to prevent re-evaluation or criticism of Gone With the Wind, and, implicitly, of its vision of the South. The appeals court ruled that such re-evaluation and criticism was in fact aesthetically valuable. “To the Eleventh Circuit,” Tehranian concludes, “the time had come to de-canonize Gone With the Wind and its inviolability.”
Berlatsky suggests that Tehranian argues this is okay because the fact that the Copyright clause of the Constitution talks about promoting the progress of "the useful arts," but that's a misreading of the Constitutional clause (and Tehranian's paper). While many people confuse this, the "useful arts" part of the clause is actually referring to patent protection ("useful arts" at the time meant inventions effectively). Copyright is supposed to be for promoting the progress of "science" (which at the time really meant "learning"). The real issue is what "promotes the progress" -- and that's where the aesthetic nature comes into play.

Tehranian's paper actually goes on to discuss another case, which we've discussed as well, which is the similar story of someone trying to write an unauthorized sequel to Catcher in the Rye. Except in that case, the judge banned the publication of the book entirely. And, again, aesthetic values came into play. As Tehranian notes:
The results of the two cases differed. In the former, an injunction against publication of the unauthorized work was lifted, and in the latter, the injunction ultimately stood. However, in both cases, aesthetic considerations – namely juridical conceptions of history, hierarchy and value pertaining to the underlying works and their allegedly infringing alter egos – dominated the fair-use analysis and ultimately enabled the law’s selective consecration of cultural meaning, its development of epistemological narratives and its beatification of sacred texts.
Later in the paper:
And aesthetic judgments on the relative value of unauthorized derivative works appear to have made a key difference in the court’s decision to issue the injunction. Consider the only mention that the Salinger court makes of the overarching goals of the copyright system. Seeking to reconcile its ruling with copyright’s role in promoting progress in the arts, the Salinger court reasoned that ‘some artists may be further incentivized to create original works due to the availability of the right not to produce any sequels’ (Salinger 2010b: 268, emphasis in original). As a first matter, the court’s speculation on this point strains all credulity. But regardless of how one feels about the bizarre conjecture that the right not to produce sequels can incentivize creation, it is clear that the court’s statement rests on a tacit aesthetic judgment: that it is better to preserve (ex post) the incentive to create The Catcher in the Rye than it is to stimulate the creation of unauthorized sequels. The calculus here is fairly remarkable: the court chooses to enjoin definitely the publication of unauthorized derivatives – works that could contribute to progress in the arts – on the chance, based on idle speculation, that some artists may create more because they can rest secure in the knowledge that no one can create sequels of their works. The hierarchy at play is simple: the original work implicitly trumps the sequel(s) and/or derivatives, especially those of the unauthorized variety. Certainly, for every Godfather II and Return of the Jedi, there are dozens of Blues Brothers 2000’s. But in deciding the fate of The Wind Done Gone, the Eleventh Circuit certainly did not seem bothered by this possibility, as it adopted a radically different aesthetic judgment of the unauthorized derivative. At a more subconscious level and in the context of our times, it perhaps feels less wrong to allow someone to skewer the dated artistic vision of Margaret Mitchell than to permit the adulteration of J.D. Salinger’s beloved Holden Caulfield.
As for the idea that this is an acceptable state of affairs, I find that to be troubling. We shouldn't rely on judges to determine the overall aesthetic value of things, because that is, by definition, a regulation on speech that shouldn't be permitted under the First Amendment. Judges determining the aesthetic value of a particular work is a dangerous path to tread.

Berlatsky argues that the culprit here is copyright terms, and that we'd have fewer of these problems if copyright were shorter. Undoubtedly that's true -- depending on the length, the works discussed above would likely be public domain by now. But, that still fails to take into account attempts to do more with recent works.

As we've covered recently fan fiction is an important form of speech, even when done commercially. Thus, an even better solution to all of this is to go back to basics: copyright should only protect the expression, not the idea. This is what we're told, but it often seems to fail in these cases. Writing fan fiction, unauthorized retellings, unauthorized sequels and the like are all very different forms of expression. While they may quote and/or reference the original, they are, by definition, not copies. If copyright were properly applied, these would be allowed as not copying the expression (and, at worst, as transformative, derivative works protected by fair use).

Unfortunately, however, judges feel the need to "protect" original works based on aesthetic values, and that's a huge problem for culture, free speech and criticism.
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Filed Under: aesthetics, art, books, criticism, expression, free speech, idea expression dichotomy, john tehranian, noah berlatsky, retelling


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