Wednesday, July 12, 2006

On Unlicensed Artistic License

Tell me, if a for-profit entity (other than his employer or other authorized agent) redacted the references to Kate Winslet's breasts from Nick Gillespie's Reason article, without his express permission, would he feel that his article had been presented in a way other than he intended?

If he wrote a whole book, replete with expletives or references to sex or violence, and a publishing company decided to chop all of those out and resell the result, would he have any problem with that?

If not, I suppose Gillespie has the leg of consistency to stand on, but not much else, in my view. However, I suspect--since he didn't choose to highlight a key scene in Saving Private Ryan as his example from the linked article about a court ruling against CleanFlicks and others--that he deliberately chose Ms. Winslet's frontal assets as best illustrating his vision and thus included that reference instead of others.

I'm of the opinion that with Art, you take it or leave it. You don't get to take someone else's vision and remake it into your own image for resale. Or at least shouldn't be able to, without permission.

Now, that's not to say that individual consumers can't choose to close their eyes, fast-forward through offensive parts, skip passages or pages, or whatever. For example, it's one thing if I decide to paste a loincloth over the semi-erect penis on display in the print than hangs over the fireplace in my living room. (I've done no such thing, but that's not the point.) It would have been quite another thing if the gallery from which I purchased it had either painted on a pair of tightie-whities or airbrushed out the offensive parts. Or if I were to reproduce my print, loincloth and all, and then resell it to others

Resellers--or unauthorized sharers-outside-personal-use--are not individual consumers and their power and motives are different, no matter how much they would like to blur the lines. (By profit, I mean either in actual monetary terms, or in not having to cope with the burden of respecting other people's work and vision.) And what better example to cite in support of a reckless desire to blur lines than CleanFlick's assertion of First Amendment Rights as support for taking and altering, without permission, the expression of others? I'd characterize that as a joke, if it weren't such an affront.

I don't care how many "posts" we jam before the word "modern," in terms of age, sensibilities or what-have-you: In my book, the sort of activity addressed in the court case is still fundamentally disrespectful, arrogant, and flat-out wrong. And it doesn't matter one whit to me whether there's a market for the bowdlerized product; nor do I buy the implied argument that a group of individual consumers have "deputized" companies to "close their eyes" or "affix loin cloths" on their behalf. If the original creator or creators don't want their "product" marketed that way, for profit, by a go-between entity, that should be that.

Individual consumers can, as I said, take it or leave it. Or do their own redacting. Or start their own movie studios. Or create their own works--if they have the talent, etc. Or support those from their own ranks who do.

From the E! Online article:
"The right to control the content of the copyrighted the essence of the law of copyright," wrote the judge.

I think the court was right, and I hope its ruling is upheld throughout the (inevitable) appeal process. It won't do much, ultimately, to combat the pernicious posthowevermanytimes-modern attitude that somehow we are entitled to the intellectual and artistic fruits of successful others, even to the point of turning those fruits into something else--say, cheap fruit salad--if we like. Or the attitude that those others, on the other hand, are entitled to be grateful that we give them the time of day.

You may say, "Oh, c'mon, Titanic doesn't suffer a bit without Kate's breasts." Well, as it happens, I agree with that; frankly, I think Titanic would be just fine with a whole lot more chopped out. But that's not my call to make, when it comes to recutting the flick. There are plenty of technologies to help me skip past the parts I find unnecessary.

To which technologies, by the way, the court decision does not apply, as noted in the article, nor do I argue that they should, as used by individual consumers. Nor do I buy the argument that the ruling opens the door, much less sets up a slippery slope, leading to forced commercial-watching or banning of TIVO, etc.

That's not to say that I don't think there's a very real slippery slope involved in this issue. But I'd argue it's a quite different one, and that we've been sliding down it for years and years now.

Which is precisely the reason I'm cheering the decision in this case.

(Hat tip to XWL, a blogger of whom I'm quite fond, but with whose stance and philosophy on this specific issue I disagree in every particular. Not that he'll find that surprising.)

Update: This has been edited slightly to fix grammar.