January 14, 2005

Copyright Goes to the Movies

by Nick Montfort · , 3:34 pm

I heard an interesting talk today by Penn film scholar Peter Decherney, author of the soon-to-be-released Hollywood and the Culture Elite: How the Movies Became American. He spoke about the topic of his next book, which he’s just stared on: Who Owns the Movies? A Cultural History of Film Copyright. Peter is also teaching a course on Copyright and Culture this semester, with lots of good Lessigian, Vaidhyanathanian, and Stallmanic stuff on the syllabus.

I was fascinated by some of the parallels between copyright issues in motion pictures and copyright issues in computing, and by some of the ways that the legal history of the two media didn’t correspond. Edison printed out films as a single photo in order to register copyrights for them starting in 1894, while copyright was first registered for a computer program by John Banzhaf III in 1964, who sent a magnetic tape and a printout of the COBOL program, apparently as a legal experiment. A lower court ruled early in the last century that only the projectionist was liable for violation of copyright associated with the display of a film – a ruling that was overturned – which reminds me of arguments that those who make copyrighted files available for download aren’t guilty of infringement, since only those who download them are. Apparently, thanks to a case dealing with the 1908 film Ben Hur, copyright issues forced film studios to either turn to original stories or pay to continue adapting books, making for a dramatic change in film production. While there’s no clear analogue to digital media, it’s pretty amusing that the film industry was once buffeted by copyright claims and forced to become more original.