Monday, May 17, 2010

Book review: Bound by Law

I've written a short review of the superb Bound by Law? Tales from the Public Domain for the film studies journal Scope. Here's an excerpt:
You seldom find lawyers writing comic books. It's not that we have anything against them. We're happy to litigate about them (as fans of Alan Moore's Watchmen can testify, having seen Zack Snyder's film adaptation delayed by litigation between Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers). We're even sometimes their subject (just consider the central role of Harvey Dent / Two-Face in the Batman canon). But writing comic books? What might the clients think? Or the tenure committee? And how might a profession known for its verbosity cope with the tight constraints of the speech bubble?

This makes Bound by Law? a rare beast indeed – a comic book written (and drawn) by lawyers which also manages to be a clear and entertaining introduction to the legal issues faced by filmmakers in the minefield that is intellectual property law. The authors are academics at UC Davis School of Law (Aoki) and Duke University Law School (Boyle and Jenkins) with a track record of innovative research at the point where law, creativity and the public domain intersect. In this book they set out to look at the position of documentary makers and how intellectual property law constrains what they do, with a view to illustrating the wider argument that the law has become imbalanced and is in need of reform.

The focus of their work is neatly set out by this example:

A cell phone happened to ring during the filming of Marilyn Agrelo and Amy Sewell's Mad Hot Ballroom, a documentary about New York City kids in a ballroom dancing competition. The ring tone was the Rocky theme song … EMI, which owns the rights to the Rocky song asked for – guess how much? $10,000. In another scene, they were filming a foosball game and one of the players spontaneously yelled "Everybody dance now" – a line from the C&C Music Factory hit. Warner Chappell demanded $5,000 for the use of the line (14).

This demonstrates an ongoing problem for documentary film makers -- the problem of documenting the world when certain aspects of the world (music playing in the background, artwork on the walls, even trademarks appearing on products) may be off limits. This book is full of examples of situations where documentary makers have found their work stifled as a result. But how did we arrive at a situation where rights holders demand payment of large sums for transient and incidental excerpts of their works? And what should we do about it?
Full review.

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