You probably watched a film over this long weekend, perhaps at a theatre and at home. Seeing the FBI & Interpol WARNING about copyright infringement in 16:9 aspect on my new HD setup really made a big impression.
My viewing pleasure was The New Bond Film (does it have another title?), The Good German, and two classics, Lawrence of Arabia, and Rocky. Each has that central figure, with their own essential male-ness – strengths that cloak vulnerabilities, wise ways that may just be instincts, admired by men and women to the point that some want them destroyed – no one of them the sort you’d raise your son to be.
Each of these films has its own copyright profile too. Lawrence is an original portrayal of a life in actual historical context. The New Bond and his exploits derive from, but differ from Ian Fleming’s novel. Rocky depicts a flamboyant heavyweight champ named for an earth god, who plucks an unknown club fighter into the limelight. The Good German uses visual composition to pay homage to past films. Artistic license, and the copyright tenets that provides exclusivity, provides full vocal range to these characters and to directorial efforts composed from history and popular culture. What limits then are there on making a known story one’s own.
Recent cinema has retold ‘true’ or ‘inspired by’ stories of Ray, Johnny Cash, Enron execs, The Aviator, and now, “Bobby.” These biopics are more history, or pop culture fables, than “works of original authorship.” When the famous or infamous say “I’ll sell you my story,” what really do they sell – a covenant not to sue? The great exploits of Lawrence in Arabia are true, and many truly are exagerrated. With that, and “Bobby,” the man who lived the story died before it was adapted for the silver screen. Events in history are publici juris, and uncopyrightable. Yet, the expression or arrangement of the historical story may be protected by copyright.
Is “Lawrence of Arabia” any more T.E. Lawrence, or any less so, than “Rocky” is a depiction of The Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner; is not Apollo Creed a crass version of The Louisville Lip? Copyright cannot protect the author’s studied retelling of the facts, especially when those facts and the essential characteristics of real persons are woven into new costuming.
The Bond franchise credits its originator, but the films produced by Albert Broccoli derive from, rather than track closely, the books of Ian Fleming. Both are original works, protected by copyright, one for the originals and others for the derivative versions. A derivative copyright protects only the new material contained in the derivative work, not the matter derived from the underlying work.
A more complex issue of copyright accompanies “homage” films such as The Good German. Students of film noir, neo-noir, as well as fans of Dietrich, Garbo and Welles can reel off the numerous instances where The Good German pays homage to their prior work. “The Third Man” “Casablanca” and others, plainly were recast in The Good German. Recall the cases about “look and feel” form of copyright infringement. Director Steven Soderbergh adopts, in gross, the look and feel of several classics and noir films. In fact, scenes or perhaps Scènes à faire, appear throughout the film. What then is the distinction between homage and “substantial similarity” in a copyright context? At least one of the two will get you sued. Homage is perhaps a sincere form of showing your respect for the masters. Substantial similarity is what chafes an author to the point of suing for exploitation.
It’s another week, with plenty of opportunities to watch more films. Enjoy!