Mining Jane Austen

Long copyright terms are bad for society.

I enjoy watching costume dramas.  I also enjoy the fine art of parody.  Thus it was that Netflix brought me the British miniseries Lost in Austen, which tells the story of a modern young London woman who has adored the world of author Jane Austen since childhood.

After a particularly trying day at a stressful modern job, commuting troubles, and boyfriend frustrations, Amanda Price is suddenly visited by Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.  Miss Bennet had found a secret door in her home's attic that opens onto Amanda's bathroom; Amanda can't help but leave Miss Bennet standing in the loo and venture through the door herself, ending up in Regency England at the very beginning of the novel.  The door closes and locks behind her, and she's stuck.

Somewhat like Austin Powers, Pleasantville, and Blast from the Past, this is a fish-out-of-water story with a protagonist who blatantly doesn't belong where she finds herself.  The story works only because Jane Austen's novels are so famous that most everybody generally knows what they're about, just as we all have a vague familiarity with the world of the 50s and 60s which may not bear much resemblance to actual reality but is strongly imprinted in the national psyche all the same.

Amanda's egregious social faux pas wind up totally discombobulating Jane Austen's story, with all the Bennet girls ending up coupled with the "wrong" men; Lizzie find herself quite happy in the 21st century and stays on there.  As Amanda remarks when the smoldering Mr. Darcy falls in love with her instead of Lizzie as originally written, "Hear that, George?  Drrrrrrr.  That's the sound of Jane Austen spinning in her grave like a cat in a tumble-dryer."  No doubt.

Jane Austen is dead and buried lo these two hundred years.  Her copyrights have expired so neither she nor her heirs have anything to say in the matter of her story being recycled as parody.

What's more, Lost in Austen, whether you find it funny or sacrilegious, is most definitely a unique and original work.  It derives from Jane Austen, yes, but it goes beyond her work into a new and unique story.  Don't most detective stores derive from Sherlock Holmes in one way or another, as West Side Story was derived from Romeo and Juliet?

The Death of Derivation

Some while back, I spent a hilarious evening with my cousin scoping out another potential parody movie, The Muppets' Harry Potter, with Kermit as Harry, Miss Piggy as Hermione, Uncle Deadly as Voldemort, and so on.  We were rolling on the floor; if the Muppets can produce classic and memorable, if somewhat irreverent, renditions of Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol, and The Wizard of Oz, why not the Wizard of Hogwarts?

Alas, the world will never see our creation and we all know the reason why: the only question would be whether the lawyers of J.K. Rowling or of Disney, the Muppets' new owner, would beat down my door first the moment they got wind of the project.  But isn't my idea a unique and original work?

OK, I admit, this may not be exactly what our Founders had in mind when Section 8 of the U. S. Constitution granted Congress the power

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. [emphasis added]

The point remains the same.  The Muppets' Harry Potter may be a trivial confection, but literature, art, and science are filled with more worthy innovations that, though new in some sense, nevertheless depend on prior works.  That's exactly why the Founders specified that patent and copyright protections must be for limited times: as Sir Isaac Newton realized,

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

If Sir Ike himself couldn't have made his discoveries without building on the prior work of others, what hope have we?

Current copyright law locks down creations for a long, long, long time.  Mickey Mouse was invented by Walt Disney in 1928; thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, his image will not enter the public domain for a century.  Who knows what other imaginative works he might have spawned?  As it is, Disney owns him lock, stock, barrel, and derivations.

As the Founders realized, it's necessary for creative types to be compensated for their inventions.  Copyrights and patents are essential for modern progress, otherwise far fewer people would bother to create new things only to see them immediately stolen and copied.  However, limits on those monopoly rights are every bit as important, to allow even newer things based on yesterday's new gadget.  The patent office has the right idea: 20 years or less, plus extensions in case of bureaucratic delay, but certainly no more than a quarter-century.

Why is it that 20 years is good enough for Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, and IBM, but not enough for Walt Disney and J.K. Rowling?  It's difficult to imagine an author sitting down to write the Great American Novel, thinking "Oh dear, my copyrights will extend only 25 years instead of 100, it's just not worth the bother," and turning on "American Idol" instead.

In a landmark 2003 ruling, the Supreme Court found that ages-long copyright terms weren't automatically unconstitutional because the Constitution never set a specific term or term limit.  They were right, legally, but that doesn't make ridiculously long terms right.  Shorter copyright terms would lead to a new burst of innovation in literature and the arts, as today's imaginative youth are freed from having to dig into the 19th century to mine old ideas in the public domain.

Then we might get to see Kermit the Frog with glasses, a wand, and a scar.  Inspiring!

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
I agree about the copyright term. 20 years is long enough, 40 years is pushing it, 100 years is ridiculous. But that's just my personal opinion.

The important question is... Does having TOO long of a copyright term stifle creativity? How can that be proven? Disney's rights haven't made the cartoon market shrink; it's grown exponentially in the past 50 years. One could easily suggest that seeing the (lavish) rewards that Disney has made has influenced other artists to enter that industry. Nickelodeon, Dreamworks, Paramount and others are making tons of money off cartoon rights too.
June 30, 2009 9:28 AM
From the article: "Shorter copyright terms would lead to a new burst of innovation in literature and the arts, as today's imaginative youth"

We have more innovation in literature and art today then ever before and by far. Next time you're bored, check out YouTube or the countless self-publishing book/e-book sites.

Art has grown by an order of magnitude over the past 30 years. Public schools teach art more than science, and the internet distributes art and connects artists in a way never possible before.
June 30, 2009 9:32 AM
"We have more innovation in literature and art today then ever before and by far. Next time you're bored, check out YouTube or the countless self-publishing book/e-book sites."

Exactly - and a vast number of them violate copyright laws, by "illegally" using copyrighted music or film clips in their production. As a result, the new works are confined to the mostly unpoliced ghetto of the Internet, and even there are frequently booted off by copyright-holder complaints to YouTube.

In response to lfon - what does the long copyright for Mickey Mouse have to do with Disney's success today? They haven't made any new Mickey cartoons in years, he's nothing more than a corporate emblem. Mickey entering the public domain wouldn't have prevented Up, High School Musical, or anything else new from being a success.
June 30, 2009 10:04 AM
It has nothing to do with Disney's success today but that was never the point.

The point is about stifling the creativity of OTHERS, no Disney.

To extrapolate on your question, what does the long copyright for Mickey Mouse have to do with stifling OTHER people's success today?

The answer to that also appears is: nothing. It isn't stifling it at all. People are creating cartoons in abundance far beyond anything 50 years ago. Which is the whole point.
June 30, 2009 10:19 AM
On your response to doug about YouTube...

I disagree entirely. Yes, there are certainly many infringed works up there. But those account for a very small minority of the total content.

Look at the brand new, original, amateur content. Look at the time-lapse paintings, the "vegetable music", the comedy specials.

YouTube has millions, maybe billions, of totally new creations that have nothing to do with any existing TV content. Sounds like you haven't been on there in awhile. YouTube isn't just a site that hosts TV clips. That's the least of what's up there.

And there are a good 20 or 30 other YouTube clones too. for instance.

People are far more creative now than ever, I think.
June 30, 2009 10:23 AM
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