Thursday, October 9, 2014

We Are All a Den of Thieves (especially Shakespeare)

I would like to tell a tale about novelists, play-writes, poets, musicians, actors and all of those other dreamers living at the bottom of society with nothing but the clothes on their backs, big ideas. . . and minds full of other people's property!   

My tale begins with one of the greatest dreamers in history, an author named William Shakespeare.  We can skip the details of his life.    What's important here is that Shakespeare died in 1616, 398 years ago from the year 2014.    By then he had written many plays and poems and scholars, educators and classical artists have marveled over his work for all of those centuries.    There is one very special story, however.    A story so huge, it has grabbed the entire world by the gut and made it sob: Romeo and Juliet.   

Shakespeare created this play in a time where there was no such thing as the word "intellectual property" or the so called "copyright laws" that protect it.    Things were written down and printed, but there was also a much  more free and democratic  flow of ideas because the ability to make copies was much more naturally limited.  In those days, hearing or reading ideas and then repeating them was no different than hearing something from your friend and then repeating it to the neighbors.  Everyone has their own way of filtering the same story.   Some people tell it better than others.  Famous works that borrowed were not just making an exact copy, they were adding their own personality, or finding some new way of presenting them that was innovative.   This can be seen very clearly even in the modern day.   Walt Disney is a great example.  He used the existing stories of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc. to showcase a very special kind of animation. He was not a plot weaver or a composer.  He was an innovative, but poorly financed,  graphic artist.  He needed easy, cheap, access to well known story material and music in order to help sell people on the idea of animation as proper art form. 

The story about the earliest copyright laws is a long one.  The short story is this:  Copyright law was a reaction to the technology of making copies and passing them around, not an attempt to put limits the free and democratic exchange of artistic ideas.  The most natural way of protecting people's artistic work was to call it "property".    This was a legal construct, the same way todays corporation is a legal "person" in order to make it fit in with the existing legal system of bank accounts and land ownership.     Most recognize that ideas are a very special kind of property, however.  They don't view it as exactly the same thing as real property any more than corporations are exactly the same as living people.   Intellectual property rights were designed to deal with situations that normal property laws do not, such as allowing educators and scholars "fair use" of the property without paying.   Nobody get's fair use of our cars, or houses.   The copyright laws changed a lot over time but there has always been a deliberate balance between protection and access because both are seen as equally important to the future of art and society.  The protection part creates a generous window of time for artists and their descendants to exploit and control the work.  The "access" part of this balance is to limit the size of that window so that future artists will eventually gain unrestricted access to any art that is old enough.  This is called the "public domain".   The public domain is what allowed Disney to use Snow White without any restrictions and it is what has allowed us all to freely use Shakespeare's work for over 300 years.

There are those who disagree with this attempt at balance.   Some over the years (usually people with lots of valuable intellectual property "in the bank") have argued that their work should be protected longer, even forever.  Their argument is that "property is property" and forcing expressions into the public domain is little more than state sponsored property theft.    In that view, the Shakespeare family should have always been protected and anyone who wants to do anything with Shakespeare's works should need to pay a fee, and/or get permission from someone like, for example: Shakespeare's great, great, great, great, great, great, grandson's, nephew's ex wife. . . who is very unreasonable for unknown reasons.  

There is a big elephant in the room with this view however.     If the "property is property" believers are to be consistent with their own arguments, then all the ideas before the time of Shakespeare should have also be protected.  If that is the case,  then the first thing that happens is that William Shakespeare decides not to write Romeo and Juliet, because someone else wants money and creative control before they will give him the rights.  There was a family in that day that could truthfully claim that their dead relative had expressed the plot, the setting, the families and even the title of Romeo and Juliet in a poem, before Shakespeare ever wrote his play.    Shakespeare was an idea thief!  A big one.  Even under todays limited protections let alone the permanent protection some people dream of.   In fact, if property is property, there is a whole legacy of thieves around Romeo and Juliet to consider.

A long long time ago in a land far, far away there lived a Greek named Xenophon.  Xenophon wrote a novel in the year 200 AD.  It was called "Ephesian Tale of Anthia and Habrocomes"  The story involved two lovers who could not stay together because of their circumstances and they decided to commit suicide.    In the year 1530 we know for certain that a thieving man named Luigi Da Porta is caught red handed stealing this idea.  "Luigi the Thief",  as I shall call him,  was a two time thief!    Luigi's story had the suicide lovers as part of two feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues, in the city of Verona.    He stole those ideas from a guy named Massusccio Salemitano.     "Sal", as I shall call him, wrote a poem titled "Cinquante Novelle" in 1476.  It was that poem that contained the original idea of the two feuding families and the city they lived in.  Luigi liked the poem so he took the place and people from the poem, the murder suicide from the Greek novel,  and put them together into his own idea of the story.  He didn't even change the names and places.  

Not long after,  a man named Arthur Brook also wrote a poem inspired by that story.    He called it: “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet”   Brook's poem had all the details about a city known as Verona, and two feuding families, Capulets and Monagues and the tragic day that their hate for each other lead to the suicide of two of their children "Romeus and Juliet" who had fallen in love.   What a strangely familiar idea. . .   Brook never gained much fame or fortune from his poem.   It floated around for a while until a man named William Painter turned it from a poem, back into a story in 1567.     That is when the man we all know and love, William Shakespeare, shows up.   Shakespeare was not always a big original plot weaver in his work.  Many times he used existing powerful stories in order to sell people on his special style of stage plays. He got ahold of these other men's poems and stories sometime between 1591 and 1595 and used them as the plot and characters for a play which he called "Romeo and Juliet".  The play was about. . . well. . . everything and everyone I just mentioned, plus the things he added from his own brilliance.  If property is property forever, then William Shakespeare, or Billy The Kid, as I shall then call him. . was a thief in a line of thieves because he stole property from Painter. . . who stole from Brook, who stole from  Luigi, who stole from Sal, and Xenophon.   

"Romeo and Juliet" as we know it was published in 1597.    Fortunately for all of us, Shakespeare wasn't faced with as situation something like: Brook's widow and Painter's son insisting on getting the writing credits Luigi and Sal insisting on creative control and Xenophon's family insisting on credit for the original idea.  Then at the bottom of the poster in small print it could say  "Adapted for Stage by William Shakespeare".    What would that play look like?  Would it ever get off the ground if it needed the green light from 5 other people who never wrote a play?

What about the period after Shakespeare's death?   Expressions of Romeo and Juliet have launched many careers.   Millions have benefited from this play from pure entertainment, to scholarship, directing skills, acting skills, technical skills to adaptations into operas, books, songs, movies, paintings, sculptures,  on and on.   A famous example:  Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Burnstein wrote a musical stage play called "West Side Story" in 1957,  which was based on Romeo and Juliet.  Fortunately they didn't face the Shakespeare family ex-wife's grandson insisting on creative control.    My father earned his name as a theater director partly by directing West Side Story.  I personally got my very first job in the movie business on a low budget movie that was doing a comedy knock off of Romeo and Juliet.  Angelina Jolie starred in that movie as the Juliet character.   It was the very first feature film of her career.   At least 57 other movies have also used Romeo and Juliet either by performing it word for word or by putting the story into a new situation with different characters and places.  

Beyond just this play, there are over 400 movies or TV shows and countless stage performances that use Shakespeare's work in one way or another.  Who could count all of the people that this has entrained or the careers it has built or launched?  The "property is property" lawyers would have quickly destroyed us all if they had a time machine because they would have found plenty of cease and desist opportunities in all of Shakspeare's work.  The idea for King Lear was taken from a previous play "The true Chronicles of King Lier and his 3 daughters" written in 1605 by a currently unknown playwright.  The idea for Macbeth was taken from Holinsheds Chronicals "Macbeth".   Holinshed based his story on "Scrotorum Historiae" written in 1527 by Hector Boece.  Shakespeare took from others and In turn, we have all taken from Shakespeare.   It is the circle of life.   If not through Shakespeare then any of a thousand other artists and artworks.  If Shakespeare was a thief, then so are most of the great artists of the past present and future.

So the question stands before us:  How much good in the world of art did all the free exchange around this story of two lovers who committed suicide do?   Was it more important to allow the descendants of Xenophon or Salamintano to cling tightly to their little pieces so that they could never be used or changed without their control?   How important was Shakespeare?  Should he have been motivated and inspired by free access to those other works?  Would his work have been the same if it had restrictions and boundaries, or plots he always had to write up from scratch?  What about those who later used Shakespeare's work in their own art?  Was it good for their growth and development to be released from all restrictions and boundaries?  Did they then benefit us all?  Would we really go back in a time machine and stop all of that in order to allow the Shakespeare descendants, who never created the art, maintain permanent control over it's uses?  If not, then why should we move the time machine forward and do it from now on?

Like my my father, my brother and my sister before me, I am an artist and a creator of intellectual property.   My work involves written, musical and motion picture expressions.    I have worked on stages, film sets and in theaters all my life.    I believe in my right to own and control my original ideas and pass them to my descendants for a limited time.   I want us all to make money off our work if we deserve it.   What I do not want is this dystopian vision where property is property forever. That is nothing but a short sighted pathway to the creative apocalypse; a world where artists are afraid of creating new works  and the ones who are brave enough will often abandon brilliant ideas because of licensing issues with relatives over a 300 year old or 1000 year old property.  The idea of extreme long term or permanent ownership of intellectual property is not something I can't just "agree to disagree" over.    It is outright offensive and repugnant to me as an artist who knows what launched me and cares about launching future artists and art.   I, literally, cannot stop myself from pushing back against it.  There are always people who will harbor bad beliefs if they are not pushed and pushed into finally understanding the consequences of their beliefs.  I can only hope that there will be enough people who come to understand those consequences as people like me plead for them to listen.

Ask the fans of Shakespeare or Sondheim/Burnstean, or Disney if it's worth it.

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