By Isaac Butler
Longtime readers of Parabasis probably know that I'm all for loosening and restructuring (without getting rid of) copyright law. Short version: Copyright is s established in the Constitution for the encouragement of creativity and innovation, not the compensation of creators, and it wasn't designed to last an ever-increasing amount of time (how do we know this? it used to last seven years). We have a system now that discourages creativity and innovation (at least in the arts) by turning our creative work into "property" to be protected, forever, if possible. I would favor a system where copyright did not outlive creators, where there were two systems of permissions, a loose one for art and a tight one for advertising. If you want to use a Tom Waits song in a play, you shouldn't have to ask permission, if you want to use it in a German car commercial, you should. Furthermore, we need to recognize the value of remix art, which is to say, art that is created at least in part out of the pieces of other works of art and we need to make it more possible for people to create it. Work like Chuck Mee's plays, or Girl Talk or any of those YouTube recut previews everyone loves. Since all art involves borrowing from other people anyway, it should be a bit easier to take fragments of text from here, or a character from there, or a plot from there. I don't think writers (or, obviously their estates) should have complete interpretational control over their work past first (few?) productions (haven't figured that one out enough).
That being said, I do believe that copyright has value. I think people should have (reasonable) control and be able to ask for (reasonable) compensation with regard to their work, during their lives. I think-- in terms of art-- we have a completely mistaken belief in sui generis and that calling something "derivative" isn't really an insult. At the same time, I think there is a difference between art that legitimately creates something new out of borrowed fragments of other work and work that simply seeks to "improve" on some work by changing the text. And because these things are grey, I think our law should try to reflect that, even if that means leaving some stuff up to judges.
I bring this up because of this open letter to the theatrical community by Boxcar's Nick Olivero. It's worth reading the thing in its entirety. What Olivero did was take the musical Little Shop Of Horrors and change its book by adding excerpts from the two films, Rocky Horror and some other sources. He then advertised this work as Little Shop of Horrors and charged admission to it. His production was shut down.
He believes that on some level it was right that his production was shut down, as he violated the terms of a legal contract he entered into. But he compares what he did is akin to doing a radical resetting of Death of a Salesman on the moon (i.e. a bold interpretational choice) or the work of Charles Mee (i.e. a work of remix culture). From what I can glean from his letter, however, his production of Little Shop is neither.
Let's use Mee as an example. Mee uses found text in his work, but he also uses a great deal of original text, and that found text is deployed into a plot (usually also borrowed from a classical source) that the text has no original relationship to. In Orestes 2.1, for example, Helen of Troy speaks frequently with words taken from American Psycho about Patrick Batemen's beauty regimen. Other characters quote other sources constantly. Woven throughout it, however, is Mee's own voice (generally rendered in verse to the borrowed sources prose). He also does not claim any copyright protection over his plays, and invites people to use them and remix them how they will so long as they call them something different.
Girl Talk-- the remixiest of all remix art-- doesn't include anything original, but arranges the fragmented source materials in innovative and illuminating ways, often distorting them (speeding them up, changing pitches etc.) to make them fit. The result is something new. Not something I care for particularly, if I'm being honest, but you still can see how the familiar has been rearranged and made strange.
As to interpretation, what is generally understood by theatrical interpretation of texts not in the public domain is production choices that alter our understanding of a text without changing the text itself. The stuff that gets you in trouble with the Beckett estate is not rewriting Endgame, but setting it in a subway station. Simon McBurney's All My Sons made a number of bold production interpretation choices without altering the text. Etc. and so forth. By altering the text, Boxcar's Little Shop falls outside this purview. According to this Playbill article offering details of the show, there are many really interesting things Olivero did that actually are innovative interpretative choices (having the show start outside with a flash mob chorus etc.)
If the production had gotten shut down for those kinds of environmental theatre choices, I'd be manning the barricades right now. And I agree with Dave Molloy who writes in the comments to Olivero's open letter that we need some kind of new adaptive license that allows people to adapt, remix, combine and alter existing work. Oddly, we have a framework now where you can mock something and get away with violating its copyright, but you cannot respond sincerely to it. That sucks.
At the same time, I find it hard to have much sympathy for what happened to Boxcar here, beyond knowing how much it sucks when something you're passionate about doesn't pan out. Even in a world of loosened copyright, of more freedom to mix and match materials, with work entering the public domain much faster, I'd still think the rights house would be in the right on this one. This isn't a new work with a new title built out of borrowed building blocks, this is a production that billed itself as Little Shop of Horrors and wasn't.