I’ve had some great email conversations with Soap fans about the amount of trouble they’ve gone to in order to see some of the harder-to-find Soap episodes, especially the compilation “best of” ones that kicked off Seasons 2, 3 and 4. Often those conversations get around to the reason they’re so hard to see: many don’t want to make a digital copy because they’re afraid they’ll end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit; this despite the fact that some of those episodes have never been commercially released.
Naturally, there are some rebels amongst you (God bless you people) who live by the code of the fan that states simply “If you don’t charge for it, you’re doing nothing wrong, so get outta my face already.” And I think many can agree that this is a reasonable compromise.
However, American copyright laws are such that they put all copyright holders in the unenviable position of having to fight any possible copyright infringement, no matter how ridiculous, or risk losing their claim to said legal protections completely.
I bring this up because this week brought a prime example of just how mad these laws are, and just how ruthless companies have become in enforcing their rights, however David the adversary is to their Goliath.
Please Remove the Words ‘Hunger’ and ‘Games’ From Your Vocabulary
As we are all just cogs in the marketing machine of whichever faceless corporation is in the ascendancy at the moment, let me add my penny’s worth of bloggery badinage to talk of The Hunger Games. No, I haven’t seen the film nor have I read the books, but during this, its opening week, I HAVE read reports about the usual corporate bullying that accompanies any property that makes more money than anyone knows what to do with.
As reported by ThinkProgress and now more mainstream media, Lionsgate sent a cease-and-desist letter (the legal equivalent of the ol’ horse-head-in-the-bed routine) to charitable organization Oxfam (partnering with the Harry Potter Alliance — another story for another time) for using the slogan “Hunger is not a game.” Really. (I especially appreciate this summary of the goings on from the commendable genre film site Twitch.)
Here’s an excerpt from that letter:
“…What is not a part of the Lionsgate plan is the distortion of our Motion Picture title. That is what Oxfam has done with your “Hunger is not a Game” logo. And with the many website you have incorporated into your campaign. This is causing damage to Lionsgate and our marketing efforts….We are truly making an effort to work with you on this. We have the ability to take down your sites as a violation of our trademark and other intellectual property laws. We hope that will not be necessary as this is too serious a subject.”
There are literally so many things morally and logically questionable about this approach, I’m not sure where to begin.
1. They’re trying to claim exclusive right to individual words rather than a title. Granted just about everything in the West appears to have been strip-mined and sold out from under us by this point, but we are now seriously discussing the removal of everyday words from our vocabulary. Does this strike anybody as a particularly good idea?
2. This movie has already made so much money, the only way it could suffer financially is if the company responsible did something reprehensible…such as sucker-punching a beloved charity. In just a little more than a day, the movie has made nearly $69 million toward an estimated $80 million budget. By the end of this weekend, it’s likely to make at least twice that amount.
3. This is @#!! Lionsgate. Lionsgate started life as a plucky little company that specialized in bringing low-budget horror flicks to market — movies that nobody else would take a chance on. In short, it was the alternative to the soul-less, money obsessed Hollywood corporate system. And then it earned some money.
4. If you’re going to claim exclusivity to a creative work, you really need to make sure you have a work that is unique. One of the worst aspects of claiming copyright on a work of fiction, be it book or film or what have you, is that there really is nothing that can claim to be 100 percent original. Every creative work builds on those that came before it; nobody creates anything in a bubble. What you are minting is a piece of culture, and culture by its very nature is communal property. And when it comes to The Hunger Games, it borrows — whether intentionally, unintentionally or simply by zeitgeist — from one of the most loved genre movies of the last 20 years.
Based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Koushun Takami, Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 movie Battle Royale has built a worldwide following thanks to its visual style, quirky sense of humor, and chilling worldview. All of this, mind you, without a single North American release (until this month). Americans have invested in region-free DVD players and imported it from the UK, Japan and China just to screen this masterpiece. To my knowledge, nobody has been legally pursued over the dozens of T-shirts, buttons and other items that have been made using images from the movies.
5. Well-heeled companies browbeating charities is just tacky. It’s bad enough when big distributors come down on fan sites whose greatest offense is having posted fan fiction or having built great online shrines to their creative property of choice; it’s disgusting when the light-and-shadow merchants go after organizations dedicated to doing good in the world.
Yet, after all this, it has to be said again that most of these companies don’t go after the likes of Oxfam because they enjoy being evil — they do it to legally protect “intellectual property” from being taken from them, because that’s how the laws are written. Here’s an idea (the mainstream word for “intellectual property”): at a time when so many people are a stone’s throw from selling apples on the street corner, we temporarily ask the attorneys at Lionsgate who whip up these cease-and-desist letters to volunteer at their local Oxfam or similar charity if they don’t already do so. Not only is this the compassionate thing to do, it may be a smart move considering the “creative property” you’re representing.
A whole new generation is being inspired to pick up the archer’s bow, after all — it may be a good idea not to behave too much like the villains in the movie. One can only imagine the legal trouble they’d get into if they met an end similar to the baddies in their film.