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Copyrighting dance

I had a stimulating dinner conversation with someone who works for an institution that preserves the work of a well-known choreographer. (I’m being a bit cagey because I may not be representing this person’s views accurately.) The institution licenses productions very carefully and is stringent in insisting that every element of the productions be authentic, i.e., be as the work was originally produced. Predictably, I wondered why the institution didn’t loosen up. The choreographer would have more influence because her (or his — caginess!) works would be more frequently performed. After all, if the Beethoven Institute insisted that all performances must be on original instruments, using exactly the same pacing, intonations, sonic dynamics, etc., as Beethoven intended, our culture would be far poorer because we’d hear much less Beethoven and many fewer creative interpretations of his works. In fact, Beethoven would have copyrighted himself right out of culture.

But, replied my dinner companion, it’s different with the work of a great choreographer. The work consists of the details of music, costume, lighting and gesture. The gap between composition and performance is smaller than with a musical score; in fact, there is no gap.

I am not convinced. Nor am I not unconvinced. I think I think that the magic of metadata could let us have our cake and dance it too: the association could authenticate those performances that met its criteria, while freely (liberally, if not for free) permitting non-canonical performances. I don’t know the status of Gilbert and Sullivan’s copyrights, but the D’Olyly Carte group performs a similar metadata function: There are many productions of Gilbert and Sullivan works — a couple of weeks ago, we saw a delightful Mikado that updated lyrics with references to Dick Cheney’s little list — but if you want to see an authentic version, you go to D’Oyly Carte.

But, much as a I like metadata, I’m not confident that I understand the dimensions of the issues in copyrighting something that seems to fall between a score and a performance. [Tags: ]

2 Responses to “Copyrighting dance”

  1. on 26 Jan 2008 at 10:49 amTom Roper

    Intersting post. Koko’s list aria has always been fair game for singers who wanted to insert topical references, indeed one wonders if Glibert did not write the lines,
    ‘Such as–What d’ye call him–Thing’em-bob, and likewise–Never-mind,
    And ‘St–‘st–‘st–and What’s-his-name, and also You-know-who–‘
    with that intention in mind.
    I saw a D’Oyly Carte production as a young boy when the aria included references to the Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson, and the singer flourished a pipe at the appropriate moment.

  2. on 26 Mar 2008 at 1:52 amMary W

    Nah, I don’t buy it.

    I don’t agree with the extremes that some content owners/creators go to, in trying to control any and every aspect of their content/artifact (often for years/decades after the content/artifact was in fact produced, paid for, and released out into the public eye).

    Way too much control-freakism, IMO, and over the years, that’s bad for the society, bad for consumers/amateurs, and eventually bad for the content owners.

    Squeeze the balloon too hard in one area, it just puts more pressure for it to pop out someplace else, where you have less control. So hypercontrol becomes a long downward spiral into irrelevancy. As the music corporations are finding out.

    From a societal value perspective, as well as the owner perspective, hypercontrol is a negative force in the end. Where would the cultural influence of Shakespeare be, if only “officially approved” productions had ever been allowed?

    We need more creativity and riffing and knock-offs and amateur artistic efforts in this country, not less. We need to be finding ways to enable this activity, not squash it. I don’t know what the answer is — probably a combination of things: loosing up certain of the IP laws, better enablement of micropayments, etc.

    (the recent movie “Be Kind Rewind” was a quirky look at these issues.)

    Part of what’s difficult about these debates of creator rights vs consumer/amateur rights, is that three things tend to get conflated:

    1) the legal issues related to that specific IP. People have widely varying views of what “the law” says on their pet IP issue. And, often people’s statements about what’s legal or not, are more a reflection of their own sense of right/wrong, than they are an accurate statement about the law.

    2) the financial issues, i.e. “someone else is making money off my IP and not paying me my cut!”

    Yes, there are money issues. But often they’re highly overstated by the content owners. (And the money is sometimes not the core issue — see 3) below.)

    Many content owners assign extravagant prices to their content, for both (attempted) profit-maximization and psychological (ego boost) reasons. Meanwhile the level of activity around “unauthorized” use, is a big signal that the “official” price is out of whack with market realities, market alternatives, and consumers’ perception of value/cost.

    It’s in the (self perceived) interests of content owners to overstate their content’s price/value, and to overstate their (imagined) losses from unauthorized use. But these estimates are often way high. The market for “free” is near infinite; the market for $17 CDs and $24 DVDs is not. Pretending that every illegal download is a literal $$$ loss to the content owner is a fallacy.

    Per the example you mention: oh, heavens. Famous Choreographer Institute is not going to go broke because some amateur community dance group does a schlocky version of The Super Special Dance Routine (TM) while collecting $10/head tickets for their 2 nights of performance. The only thing that’ll really damage, is the Institute’s pride. Which leads us to issue #3…

    3) the emotional / ethical / psychological issues. This IMO is the heart of many creators/owners’ concerns, and it’s why the debate gets so heated. Because for (some) creators/owners, it’s not, in the end, about money or the law. It’s about their feelings of right and wrong and what other people/consumers “owe” them.

    Some creators/owners are fanatical about controlling every aspect of their content, to the point of ridiculousness. Their perspective is that they “own it in full” and therefore even after it’s out in public for years/decades, they still have the moral right to control every little thing about it.

    This isn’t rational or logical. It’s a deeply felt emotional thing for some (not all) creators/content owners. I’ve heard some creators/owners talk about how they feel “robbed” or “mugged” or “raped” when their content is used in any way without their permission (legal parody, illegal download, any use that the creator/owner doesn’t personally approve of). Remember the TV exec who stated that people who didn’t watch TV commercials were “stealing” from the media companies?

    In the case that you describe: well, if I had a career in arts management, and I was a key employee of some artists’ legacy organization — then heck yes, I’d want to believe that that artist was of *towering importance* and I would want all their works to be lionized and carefully protected.

    Because I’ve tied my own professional and personal identity to this artist. The more important the artist is — the more important I am, by association. Allowing any schmuck to do lousy cheap knock-offs? It’s not just an infringement on the artist — it’s belittling me and my life’s work. Of course I wouldn’t want to tolerate it. So I’d want to condemn those knock-offs, to call them illegal and unauthorized and unethical.

    I believe that the psychological issues are very real for (some) creators and content owners. But I don’t believe that the law should be crafted to meet these psychological needs. IMO a better legal & financial balance needs to be found between creator/owner rights and consumer/individual/societal rights. YMMV, of course.

    (wow, I got carried away….sorry for the long comment. Loved the book BTW.)