Does it feel to you like we’ve entered an entertainment time loop? I feel like I’m waking up in my own Groundhog Day universe at the moment, cursed to exclusively consume adaptations, sequels, remakes and reboots of properties I’ve already seen.
Some of them have been true works of art, like Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse (no, it’s not just a kids movie, Mom!). Some of them were just fine, like Ocean’s 8 (Mom, there’s lots of women in it!). Some of them were truly insulting, like the bland and emotionless The Lion King (No, it’s not ‘live action’ Mom, it’s animation with no movement or colour). Looking forward, there’s many more to come, with a million Marvel movies scheduled, and trailers for Charlie’s Angels, Mulan, Frozen 2, Sonic and Cats (the horror) all streaming now. Mainstream Hollywood blockbusters seem to be seriously lacking some originality, with major studios afraid to ‘take a risk’ on new intellectual property, banking on nostalgia and popular iconography as a reliable source of profit. Copyright law is key to this process; protecting their precious characters from the public domain, being utilised in an extremely strategic way – who can hold on and renew copyright on iconic characters, who are baked into the pop culture zeitgeist?
Currently, copyright law in the United States dictates that exclusive rights are given to the original author or artist, which usually expires 70 years after the author’s death. If the work is of corporate authorship (or created by “work for hire”), the copyright lasts for a whopping 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation (depending on which amount of time is shorter). These rights can be transferred, and often are between major studios. For comparison, in New Zealand copyright law generally allows exclusive access for 50 years after the author’s death. Obviously there are really complex elements of copyright that my law Gen Ed didn’t quite cover, but this gives you an idea of guidelines followed by Hollywood. Studios are major supporters for the extension of exclusive rights to intellectual property. In the 1970s, Disney lobbied to secure an extension for exclusive rights to the original Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie. Ever since, the House of Mouse has been famously litigious over their intellectual properties, wanting to prevent their financially powerful figures from entering the public domain.
If the length of time of exclusive access was reduced, our mainstream media landscape would look entirely different. Copyright that lasted for 10 or 20 years would bring about an artistic apocalypse. Classic and iconic properties would hold much less long-term economic value, as studios would have exclusive access for shorter periods of time. This means we would get some wild stories, with much less regard for legacy, because the IP loses all reliable value in the near future. Forget The Avengers, because the crossovers in this pop culture wasteland would be pure insanity. Captain Jack Sparrow could team up with Han Solo to win the Hunger Games. Eventually, original ideas and new stories would become the most valuable, as they could generate profit for longer amounts of time. Characters that are major players in pop culture would be accessible as public domain and our own stories about them would be considered fair use. However, with pressure from studios, this exciting world is a far way off.
However, current copyright law still leaves some room for creativity. In 2011, the best-selling novel 50 Shades of Grey became a sexy sensation. Famously, the book began as a fanfiction about Twilight that the author typed up on her Blackberry mobile. In 2015, a movie adaptation was released. Another fanfiction film was released this year, After, originally a Harry Styles romance uploaded to Wattpad. I know – the quality of these films leave something to be desired – but they put forward an interesting opportunity for navigating strict copyright parameters. Fanfiction allows people to adapt mainstream premises and tell new stories, possibly more interesting ones. This can lead to new content entirely, where the original property becomes an influence the author pulls from. Indiana Jones, obviously now one of those properties heavily guarded by Disney, was born due to Spielberg’s inability to make a James Bond film. Many of the same attitudes and spy tropes are present in the franchise, but he produced new characters and a new property, pushing originality in Hollywood forward. Fanfiction, though it may induce some giggles in mainstream depiction, is adaption occurring legally within public domain. It presents a space for storytelling between consumers and allows for diverse representations (of gender, race, sexuality etc.) not yet present in mainstream film. Until strict copyright law is dead, fanfic could be the tool to challenge it. Just make sure to filter out the NSFW stuff.