Friday, 2 September 2011

Costumes and copyright

More powerful than a locomotive, but not a lawsuit.
Whenever I watch a DVD, I avoid the commentaries and the "making of" extras unless the film in question is at least 20 years old.   With one that came out a few months ago, I fully expect everyone involved to still be selling the product and therefore watching every word they say on the disc while the buffer of passing years means that we're more likely to hear how the brilliant, insightful opening sequence with its kinetic improvisation was actually due to director having to deal with a lead actor who showed up for work drunk as a lord and that the shooting script had been eaten by weasels.

Such is the case with Superman in the 21st century.  Both in the comics and the upcoming Superman feature Man of Steel, the Last Son of Krypton's wardrobe is getting a makeover with the red trunks gone and the whole thing looking more like body armour.   The film makers and comic book publishers claim that it's all about "rebooting" the series and "reimagining" the character for a new generation in a way that will revitalise the franchise, make Superman more relevant, give everyone on the Isle of Man a puppy, whiten teeth with fewer calories, etc.

Jeans?  Good grief.
Let's never speak of this.
Not exactly.  It turns out that Warner Bros. is facing defeat in a lawsuit with the heirs of Superman's creators Siegel and Shuster regaining the rights to various elements of the character; the effect of which is that if they want to continue using the original costume, they'll have to pay royalties, which to a studio executive is like asking a vampire to step into a tanning booth.  Did Warner say to themselves, "Superman's costume is as iconic as Uncle Sam's and for decades we've resisted demands by bored, self-indulgent artists to change it (and the one time we relented, it was a really bad idea), so to maintain integrity, we'll pay the royalties."  No, they were never that high.

Instead, they took the cheap out and changed the costume.

What annoys me about this isn't the change, but the hypocrisy.  Eon Productions faced a similar problem back in the seventies when Ian Fleming's script collaborator on Thunderball claimed the rights to SPECTRE and other story elements.  Not wanting to face a shakedown, Eon dumped Blofeld et al, which was their right, but at least they were honest enough to admit in public the reason why.

Just a matter of money.
The other thing that annoys me is that it's a perfect example of how the copyright laws need to be changed.  You can't hold a patent on the most vital technology for even 20 years, but the rights to a fictional character's tights can be locked up in what is effectively perpetuity.  This allows those involved to rack in profits on the work of people long dead without contributing anything by themselves, muck about with the material in the most cynical of ways, and allow books, characters and films to languish and die unread and unseen in copyright prison.  As a writer, I fully expect my rights to my works to be protected and that my daughter can get a reasonable cut after I'm gone, but should someone I've never heard of be cashing a cheque that I worked for 60 years after I've shuffled off the mortal coil and be able to make works unknown because no one dares republish them?  No, thank you.

This is definitely a job for Superman.

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