Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Copyright for Filmmakers

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, March 15, 2006

Fleeting and incidental uses of copyrighted material should usually be fair... but rights holders, distributors and insurers can be conservative about what’s fair, and require clearances anyway. So to many artists the question of “fair use” can seem like a game of blind man’s bluff, or a surrealist garden of intellectual property delights.

Keith Aoki, James Boyle, and Jennifer Jenkins have written a comic book about the impact of out-of-control copyright demands on documentaries.

RecommendationRead now
AuthorsKeith Aoki, James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins
Length76 pages
Book Rating6

Tales from the Public Domain: Bound by Law? comes from Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain and concerns a documentary filmmaker’s rising fear that she won’t be able to document anything, because everything is copyrighted. As she takes her camera throughout New York City, the sights and sounds of the city all seem to be restricted by copyright.

This is a great comic book, although the quality of the illustrations is often disconcerting. It’s done in a combination of sixties comix-style, fifties Kirby-style, and nineties McCloud style. The important part of it, however, is what it has to say about incidental use of copyrighted materials.

Documentary filmmaking has come under siege by “a culture of fear and legal threats.” Every little thing in a movie now seems to require clearance, not because the law requires it but because lawyers and insurers require it. This effectively locks out low-budget and independent film-makers unless they either erase modern culture from their documentaries or acquire major funding.

The comic covers that, and how much of that fear is unjustified by the law. And they eat their own dog food, so to speak, reproducing incidental snippets of several currently-restricted music lyrics, television shows, and books, and some trademarks as well.

It also covers the incredible lengthening of copyright terms, restricting the use of three quarters of the last century. It isn’t just the Muppet Show that has fallen to out-of-control copyright terms, but much of what could be done by documentary filmmakers.

There’s a great, confusing table that shows one of the major ways that our current copyright terms will stifle innovation: just how difficult it is to determine whether older works are restricted or not. In the past, works had to say that they were copyrighted and as of what date; there was a specific time after which they would return to the public domain. Today, no notice is required, and the term is variable depending on the life of the--for most works in today’s Internet world--unknown author.

At the end of the book, they write:

Copyright is not an end in itself. It is a tool to promote the creation and distribution of knowledge and culture. [But] just as the digital revolution allows us to offer cheap access to the texts, movies, music and images of the twentieth century, we have extended the length of copyright terms so that most of those cultural artifacts are off limits, even though they are commercially unavailable and their authors cannot be found.

And they further discuss what I’ve talked about with regards to the impending loss of copyright as any real protection.

One of the under-appreciated tragedies of the permissions culture is that many young artists only experience copyright as an impedient, a source of incomprehensible demands for payment, cease and desist letters, and legal transaction costs.

When people no longer “trust” copyright, when it no longer offers benefits but only impediments, the law might remain but it will be ignored. It will be ignored more and more, until it truly does benefit only those major businesses that can afford to spend massive funds to enforce it.

If you’re a filmmaker, you definitely want to read it; if you’re interested in how copyright restrictions will affect creativity in the future, you also want to read it.

If you would like to make copies of it--and even change those copies and make derivative works--you can do so. They’ve released their comic book under the creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share-alike license.

You can buy it on Amazon.com, but you can also read it on-line as a web page, or download the PDF to read locally or by printing it out.

Copyright for Filmmakers

Keith Aoki, James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins

Recommendation: Read now