Copywrong

As readers may have guessed from some of my recent posts, one of my summer projects has been to get to know YouTube and to understand what it means to people in all of the creative industries.  

Copyright has become a more contentious point of conversation than ever in the age of the internet. The debates over peer-to-peer file sharing and Napster created a huge uproar, with lots of outright theft, but also with overzealous record companies pursuing outrageously excessive penalties against music lovers who were primarily spreading the word about musical acts that ended up benefiting, not suffering, from the attention. 

Today, though, I want to talk about one specific pet-peeve regarding copyright. All too often copyright becomes a huge impediment to the dissemination of a work of art. Here’s but one example.

Back in the spring, I was discussing the coming year’s programming options with one of my colleagues in the OES. We were talking about staging Porgy and Bess at that time. She asked me if I knew the 1959 movie, and I said I didn’t, which I felt a little embarrassed about. I love old musicals as much as I hate most new ones (except for South Park, which I’m going to stage soon). She said she had seen it several times as a little girl and remembered it as the most wonderful film she had ever seen, but that she’d never found it on video and couldn’t remember the last time it had been on TV.    Well, I thought, how odd… How could I have missed this movie? I did a little research- the film was made in 1959, and starred Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Junior, Sidney Poitier and Pearl Bailey. Amazing cast, and, by all accounts an amazing film.    

Sadly, George Gershwin’s heirs (and Ira) were unhappy with  certain aspects of the film- primarily that it was less operatic than the original. Also, in the decade that followed its release, questions about the acceptability of the piece’s depictions of African-Americans became more and more contentious. In 1971 the Gershwins took the film out of circulation and banned all  future screenings and releases.    

If you go to Amazon and look up the film, you’ll see that there are many, many people who desperately miss this film and have spent decades looking for it. Many of them are now quite old- one woman asks for one last chance to see the favourite film of her childhood before she dies.   

The movie is certainly of historic importance, and ought to be seen, discussed and understood. Whatever discomfort the use of racial dialect may cause in this day and age, it is also a unique document of some of the greatest black performers in Hollywood history (Poitier has lobbied the family for years to get the film re-released). Well, don’t hold your breath, it’s been gone for 35 years now, and there’s no reason to think that it’s coming soon to a Blockbuster near you…     

However, in recent weeks, someone has uploaded several clips of the film to YouTube. I’m pretty sure this is not all legal, but I’m very glad they’ve done it. In fact YouTube is full of clips of great jazz acts, old movies, concerts and so on that, copyrighted or not, would never be available otherwise. One film might not be popular enough to be worth distributing, the rights to another could be tied up in estate litigation and another one could be withheld by a bitter business partner who bought the rights at auction. In any case, our cultural heritage is at risk, and the internet gives us a chance to put that material once more in a place where millions can see it and discover it. On YouTube alone are amazing films of Eric Dolphy, Allan Holdsworth, Miles Davis and others that I’ve never been able to locate.   

Surely there must be a way we can revise copyright law so that, once published, any creative work can always be re-published by anyone, but that profits from the re-publication go to the owner of the copyright? Never again would a beloved film disappear forever, and never again would rare film of a great performer be forever lost to the world.  

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