Sunday, July 22, 2007

Who Really Owns Art?

For a variety of reasons, novelist Jonathan Lethem has been attracting a lot of my attention lately. There's the fact that I'm reading his novel, Motherless Brooklyn, after thoroughly enjoying my first exposure to his work last year, in the form of another of his books, The Fortress of Solitude. Then there's the interview published this weekend on Newsarama in which Lethem talks about his upcoming comic work, reimagining the mid-70s Marvel Comics series, Omega the Unknown. In that interview, he's asked about the controversy surrounding that assignment, as comic writer Steve Gerber, who co-created Omega back in 1975, doesn't believe his character should be worked on by anyone but him. This, of course, is a position with no legal standing, since Gerber - like everyone else working within the Marvel Universe then, as now - did his creative magic under a Work-Made-For-Hire contract, meaning that he relinquished all rights to whatever he produced each time he accepted a paycheque. However, as we've seen in the previous cases of Siegel and Shuster (vis-a-vis the creation of Superman) and others, it's not completely unheard of for a big comic publisher to do something in recognition of the contribution of a writer or artist, regardless of the legal necessity of it. Public Relations can, as happened with the Superman-men, play a part in loosening up purse strings. So it would only be unlikely, not unprecedented, if Marvel had taken it upon themselves to nix the Lethem series, or at least attempt to involve Gerber in some capacity. (Nothing of the sort has happened, to date.)

Author Lethem, meanwhile, has thus been cast in the role of "intellectual property plunderer" by Gerber, despite Omega and his supporting cast being wholly and completely owned by Marvel Comics, Lethem's employer in the endeavour! (Funny that I hadn't thought to consider this scenario when I wrote, awhile back, about how the infusion of outside talent was helping to raise the bar within comics these days!)

As I continued to dig deeper into Lethem's background and newsworthiness, I discovered that this is in fact quite an appropriate scandal for him to be at the center of! He happens to be a very vocal proponent for a much more open interpretation of intellectual ownership. He wrote a very long, very fascinating article in Harper's Magazine (which you can read here) on this topic, as well as starting up his own Promisculous Materials project, whereby he has made some of his very short stories - or simply ideas for short stories - available to anyone who wants to adapt them into another form (play, movie, comic book, etc), free of charge. He's doing this, he says, because art should be shared, and adapted, and built upon, and the contributions of many are greater than the effort of one. (That's me, paraphrasing. He says it better in any of the links above.) It looks like he's also sold the movie rights to his latest novel, You Don't Love Me Yet, for a single dollar, with the stipulation that he get paid the equivalent of 2 percent of the film's budget, if it actually gets made and distributed.

Throughout all of that reading, I kept coming back to the central question in my mind, which was: How much of this do I really agree with? Among his arguments in the Harper's article is that copying music or a film electronically is perhaps no worse than lending someone a book you own, which I've never believed to be true. I think that each artist - in whatever medium he or she works, such as music, TV, movies, comics, paintings - should own the rights to their work, to the extent that they feel is appropriate, for a reasonable - but not unlimited - time after creating it. Lethem certainly makes a good case for how some art has actually suffered from being over-restricted whereas other examples have flourished in the popular mind thanks to parodies or near-plagarism of them. But I still fall on the side of believing that's up to the artist to decide, not the people who want to steal, copy or simply enjoy-without-payment the work itself. An author like Lethem can make some of his work available in that way, and that's a good thing. But by the same token, if last season's American Idol winner (I have no idea whether that was a man or a woman, nor do I care!) wants to record a CD of his or her own music, and demand that anyone who wants to own a copy pay $50 for the privilege, I think that's just fine. If it's worth $50 to you, then buy it; if not, forget about it and listen to something else instead - maybe something that's free because the artist just wants it out there, or music that's worth the $1/song that you paid for it. You don't get to forego the price tag that the artist set just because you disagree with it, anymore than you get to stay in a hotel for free simply because you think $200/night is too steep a price.

I love that the Internet has loosened up the grip that big business used to have on video (cable companies, movie studios & theatres, distributors), music (record labels) and even comics (publishers), because of the opportunity it affords Joe or Jane Q. Public to get their work out to a potentially wide audience without having to sell some jaded executive on the notion that it'll be the "next big thing." That's the Light Side of what's happening, I think. The Dark Side is that people are slowly being trained to believe that Everything Should Be Free, which in this particular context is such a derogatory stance to take toward artists and their work. We haven't - yet! - gotten to the point where a reasonable citizen thinks that their shoes, cars, or big screen TVs shouldn't cost anything to own (although that may only be because no one's figured out a way to electronically copy them) but we're definitely fast approaching that point with 'software'. Lethem doesn't seem to think that's a problem, and that's really where I think he and I part company.

But he certainly has an interesting view on all of this, and has given me more to think about on the topic. Visit the links included above if you're similarly intrigued.

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