Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Muppets DVD falls to copyright issues

Jerry Stratton, August 14, 2005

Debuting in 1976, the Muppet Show was an amazing piece of work designed to appeal to children and adults. The pitch reel even had Kermit saying “what the hell was that?” Since this is from Disney, that gag line has, of course been cut.

What’s worse, however, is that there are a lot of other scenes that have been cut, and these appear to have nothing to do with dumbing down the shows.

  • Episode 3: Joel Grey, Stormy Weather
  • Episode 6: Jim Nabors, Gone With The Wind
  • Episode 8: Paul Williams, All of Me
  • Episode 9: Charles Aznavour, The Old Fashioned Way
  • Episode 19: Vincent Price, You’ve Got A Friend

“All of Me” is one of my favorite songs, and has been since the Steve Martin movie. I’m also disappointed to see Joel Grey and Vincent Price get less screen time due to these cuts. The Muppet Show is the number one television series I’ve been waiting for now that Bewitched is available, but this moves it down lower on the list of DVDs I want to pick up.

So what happened? Disney hasn’t said yet, but since all of the cut scenes in the real episodes were musical numbers, the consensus is that this is a problem with the music rights. And the Muppet Show was filled with musical sketches throughout its life. This doesn’t bode well for the rest of the series.

This is a television series that was published in 1976, twenty-nine years ago. Under our original copyright law, Disney (or whoever owned the original tapes) could have made this special edition complete and unedited as of last year, 28 years after publication.

But because of the incredibly long copyright terms of today, those sketches could be blocked by (a) the copyright holder on the song and (b) the copyright holder on the performance. If Disney and the copyright holders can’t come to an agreement, the true shows won’t be released until 2072. Some kid born today will be 66 years old; the rest of us will be dead. This is a complete mockery of what copyright was for: granting special protections to creative works to encourage the release of those works so that the public can eventually use those creative works.

It’s a little ironic that this has happened to Disney, a major lobbyist for grossly extended copyrights, but they probably don’t care. To them, this is just a kids’ show that doesn’t deserve preservation in its original format. Nowadays, most shows probably secure the home video rights at the same time as the original broadcast rights, but older shows like the Muppets came before home video was a big deal. VHS recorders were only introduced the same year that the Muppets came out, and didn’t become a standard until the 80’s.

This is another example of how the copyright contract has been broken. Under a reasonable copyright term, major technological advances such as home video could be taken advantage of in a reasonable length of time even if they had not been considered in the original negotiations. Under reasonable copyright terms, creative works can be used freely by the public within a single lifetime. That’s the trade-off that the public gets for granting special protections to creative works that other works don’t have. For a limited time, the public pays for enforcing copyright protections and doesn’t get to use the stuff they buy as they normally could; in exchange, after that limited time, the creative works are available and may be used as normal: copying, changing, re-writing, and selling copies and improved copies.

Originally, these special copyright protections lasted fourteen years, with a possible fourteen-year extension. At the time the Muppet Show negotiated the music rights for their variety show, they were looking at a 28-year term with a possible 28-year extension. After that, the 1976 copyright act extended copyright law even further, and made it more complicated. Every time copyright holders are faced with living up to their side of the copyright bargain, they (with Disney among the most vocal) lobby congress to break the contract and further extend copyright terms.

Under reasonable copyright laws, a television show released in 1976 would not be stuck with 1976 technology until everyone that watched it in 1976 is dead.

August 30, 2005: History becomes copyrighted

Similar to the Muppets issue I wrote about earlier, “Eyes on the Prize”, a historical work on the Civil War created in 1987, ran into trouble when its time-limited licenses ran out and people wanted to watch this history on DVD. In Licensing our history, Ken Fisher writes:

The situation is one that should concern many historians and those who look to history for learning. Eyes on the Prize, for example, is not a for-profit work. Its use is entirely educational, and yet copyright holders have a tremendous amount of say in what can and cannot be used. What will the history of the early 21st century look like if most film, music, images, and writing are all copyrighted and locked down until the middle of the 22nd century?

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