This weekend I had the opportunity to watch “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” and I really enjoyed it. Although focused on movies and the film industry the topics of censorship, copyright and new technology are quite relevant to photographers. If you haven’t seen it I highly recommend renting it.
One of the first thoughts I had after watching the movie was my realization that I had a love-hate relationship with U.S. copyright laws. Considering my previous posts on the topic of copyright protection you might find this surprising. I’m a firm advocate of leveraging copyright protection to the fullest extent to protect ones photography, but at the same time feel it’s often abused.
There’s no way I can completely sum up why I feel this way, but when you rent this movie dig deeper afterwards to learn more about censorship, copyright law and the continued impact on new technologies. Keeping it short, so as to not be up too late tonight writing this, here are few things that roll up into my love-hate perception:
Censorship – Art, Photojournalism and Culture
As the movie details the MPAA is a self-regulating body put in place so that the film industry avoids government regulation. A noble cause if you think about it. One of the great things about the United States is the 1st Amendment preserving our right to free expression (speech, press, etc), but what might surprise you is that film wasn’t initially covered under the 1st Amendment as ruled by the Supreme Court in 1915. Later this was overturned in 1952, but shortly after the ruling in 1922 the MPAA was formed. So why should we as photographers care about this?
Over the course of history the arts have always been pivotal in cultural and political debates. In other countries, including our own, triggering or assisting in cultural and political revolutions. In the span of the United States short history the First Amendment has been used to protect journalists, political cartoonists using satire, more recently filmmakers and of course photographers. Historically media, whether it be in print, film or online, has the power to move people often unnerving governments. As we are all too aware today we look to the media a lot to stay informed and shape our view of the world.
Amongst the various media outlets photography has continued to prove itself as a powerful medium. Michael Tucker, the filmmaker behind Gunner Palace, had a great point during the movie about capturing life and raised the question (paraphrased), “Who is to judge what in life is G, PG, PG-13, R or NC-17?” He is one of the few people in the film to make the jump in his discussion points between film and photography. While discussing his very relevant question in his interview he points out a few examples about real life alluding to the great photojournalism photo “Phan Thá»‹ Kim PhÃºc Running from the Napalm bombing of Trang Bang” by Nick Ut. As Michael Tucker went on to say “What rating is this photograph?” Isn’t this something that we should all have had unrestricted access to see to shape our opinions and stay informed?
This photo is probably one of the most influential photos of the past 50 years. It’s impact on our society and our collective consciousness was incredibly significant. If censorship existed to suppress this our world would likely be a very different place. With that in mind it’s important to always be aware of censorship. I was reminded of that in watching this movie. Even though the actions of the MPAA are well intended it is essentially acting on some level as a censoring agent. For now collectively the photography community has no such censorship and for that I sigh with a sense of relief.
The Impact of the Public Domain
As we’re finding the public domain poses both a risk and a benefit to artists, particularly photographers as we deal with new technologies (hold your horses… more to come on that). Corporations who control artistic creations fear the impact of the public domain more than you probably know and are constantly lobbying Congress to enforce and tighten copyright law. Of all the media companies out there Disney is the most aggressive. They’ve feared losing control of Micky Mouse, the foundation to their empire, for sometime. Disney’s efforts paid off in 1998 as Congress extended the duration that Copyrights can be held.
Supreme Court Upholds Copyright Extension – Forbes.com
Now corporate copyrights are in effect for 95 years and individual copyrights for 70 years after the death of the author. This is a double edged sword. It’s great if you’re the copyright holder, but it can be stifling if you create work building upon the work of others. Sticking with Disney as an example incorporating Mickey Mouse in a photo montage you might sell or license would require Disney’s explicit approval. Whether Mickey Mouse (a copyrighted work), the Transamerica Pyramid building (a business trademark) or a variety of other subjects have become entwined in our culture. Separating these subjects from our work can be a challenge and is always something stay to abreast of. A list of subjects copyright or trademark protected that you should be aware of courtesy of imagecatalog.com a site I came up with via a Google search. It should also be noted that Creative Commons emerged out of the need for artists to share and reuse work. Still new it should be interesting to see how this develops in the coming years.
Impact of New Technologies
One emerging component of the power of the public domain is that new technologies allow filmmakers and photographers to harness discussion and viewer enthusiasm in sharing our work. One of the most interesting scenes from “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” was a deleted scene where Fred von Lohmann, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, discussed this concept.
As mentioned in this scene it wasn’t too long ago that Universal battled Sony all the way to the Supreme Court to decide the fate of a new technology called the VCR that enabled users to “time shift” programming (i.e. record). Ironically Sony would later create their own movie studio by acquiring Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Inc. With out this key decision going in the favor of Sony an entire arm of technology products would not exist today including many of the product offerings finding their way to the Internet.
As we take for granted now, the Internet provides a great mechanism to market and deliver a variety of media (film, television, writing, photography, etc.) For some the path to embracing the Internet has been a painful one, but most of us now can’t imagine displaying and sharing our photography with out it. As discussed in previous blog entries this can create a headache for us as we try to protect our work and control it’s flow and/or availability to viewers. The risk of unauthorized use whether image lifting, reprinting or author misrepresentation continues to pose its challenges.
In the end it’s clear Copyrights enable us to protect our work, but it some instances it can also hamper our ability to create. For some it’s boring and a distraction from photography, but monitoring legal and legislative developments with copyright law is quite important. It might just help you avoid a nightmare in the future as you create, market and sell your work.
[tags]movie, film, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, copyright, law, MPAA, photography, censorship, art, culture, public domain, technology, Creative Commons, Sony, Supreme Court, Nick Ut, Michael Tucker, Disney, Universal, Columbia, Trang Bang, Fred von Lohmann, EFF, Electronic Frontier Foundation[/tags]