Last night I helped organize one of 74 screenings of the first two episodes of Eyes On The Prize, the seminal documentary on the American Civil Rights Movement. It was great. I got my friends at Station 40 to host the screening with their giant living room and projector, and through our combined efforts, and a little help from the chron, we got about 30 people to show up.
I haven't organized an event in a while, and it was a welcome thing. Nothing like talking in front of people and getting a few claps to tickle the actor in me. The past part of all was that the crowd included a couple bona-fide Civil Rights veterans. It was really something to be thanked by someone who'd demonstrated with Dr. King (and lost his professorship over it). Gave me the good feelings all over, though I didn't much know what to say response.
Anyway, it was a big success. I also thought I should post my take on why this is important.
Here's the story:
Eyes on the Prize was made in the 1980s, and rightly hailed as a masterpiece at that time. It was regularly broadcast on PBS and the video series became an important part of civil rights and documentary film education nationwide. In spite of this critical acclaim and widespread appreciation, and in spite of the importance of the events documented, the film had not been broadcast, sold, or publicly screened in more than 10 years.
The filmmaker, Henry Hampton, died unexpectedly at the age of 58, without securing extended rights to the archival footage and other materials used Eyes. Even though the footage, audio and photos used in the documentary are 40 to 50 years old, contemporary copyright regulations require licenses and permissions to make even the smallest use in any subsequent production. This is a big moneymaker for entites which have consolodated legal control over a lot of cultural work. For instance AOL/Time-Warner now owns the rights to "Happy Birthday," which rakes in nearly $2 Million annually in spite of the fact that the song was published 80 years ago, and has its roots in the 1880s.
While there's wide regard for the utility and usefulness for the protection of intellectual property, the present legal environment places virtually all modern records of human events and creation in amounts in real terms to the complete commodification of culture and history. This is unacceptable in a free society.
That's right: unacceptable in a free society. Late 20th-Century America's market-based approach to things works well in many cases, but placing the values of a society -- primarily represented through History, Culture and Law -- at the mercy of the highest bidder runs counter to the principles of Democracy. We're not supposed to sell the law to the highest bidder, but with more than 50 lobbiests for every member of congress, in effect we often do. It should come as little surprise then that although copyright started out modestly to support authors but also serve the public good, since publishing and media have become Big Business, the terms of the deal have changed.
Over the latter half of the 20th Century, Copyright has expanded enormously. Whereas in times past, works needed to be registered to be copyrighted, copyright is now legally assumed unless explicity forsaken. Whereas there used to be a healthy body of contemporary work in the Public Domain -- work that was free for anyone to use as part of their own creation -- and a comprehensive registry of copyrights which allowed creators to track down copyright holdes in search of permission to excerpt/re-use work, today there is very little published in the last 75 years in the public domain, and no registry or record of who has the rights to what.
Furthermore, the term of copyright has been extended several times in the past 50 years. Sharp observers note that these extensions seem to issue forth from Congress whenever Mickey Mouse's age (now pushing 80) puts him close to the line of the public domain.
While copyright reform and Free Culture advocates are consistantly mischaracterized as pirates, anarchists, communists and worse, the reality is that we are standing up for the essential right of a society to retain the rights to its own culture. The commodification of history, culture and knowledge is not only detremental from an educational perspective, it is dangerously undemocratic.
To learn more, and to get involved: