Hollywood's Copyright Wars

Hollywood's Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet

Peter Decherney
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/dech15946
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  • Book Info
    Hollywood's Copyright Wars
    Book Description:

    Copyright law is important to every stage of media production and reception. It helps determine filmmakers' artistic decisions, Hollywood's corporate structure, and the varieties of media consumption. The rise of digital media and the internet has only expanded copyright's reach. Everyone from producers and sceenwriters to amateur video makers, file sharers, and internet entrepreneurs has a stake in the history and future of piracy, copy protection, and the public domain.

    Beginning with Thomas Edison's aggressive copyright disputes and concluding with recent lawsuits against YouTube, Hollywood's Copyright Wars follows the struggle of the film, television, and digital media industries to influence and adapt to copyright law. Many of Hollywood's most valued treasures, from Modern Times (1936) to Star Wars (1977), cannot be fully understood without appreciating their legal controversies. Peter Decherney shows that the history of intellectual property in Hollywood has not always mirrored the evolution of the law. Many landmark decisions have barely changed the industry's behavior, while some quieter policies have had revolutionary effects. His most remarkable contributions uncover Hollywood's reliance on self-regulation. Rather than involve congress, judges, or juries in settling copyright disputes, studio heads and filmmakers have often kept such arguments "in house," turning to talent guilds and other groups for solutions. Whether the issue has been battling piracy in the 1900s, controlling the threat of home video, or managing modern amateur and noncommercial uses of protected content, much of Hollywood's engagement with the law has occurred offstage, in the larger theater of copyright. Decherney's unique history recounts these extralegal solutions and their impact on American media and culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50146-0
    Subjects: Film Studies, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION: THE THEATER OF COPYRIGHT
    (pp. 1-10)

    Many factors have shaped the development of the American film and television industries: the personalities of moguls, advances in technology, and changing social mores to name a few. One of the most important drivers of the media, however, is too often underemphasized or entirely overlooked by media historians.¹ Regulation—government policies, court decisions, and internal company policies—might at first seem to be an impossibly dry or specialized subject. But when put in context, regulatory struggles often reveal some of the most human tales of personal conflicts over power, politics, and art. Regulation has also been vitally important to both...

  6. 1 PIRACY AND THE BIRTH OF FILM
    (pp. 11-58)

    Writing in 1926, film historian Terry Ramsaye described the first decades of the U.S. film industry as a “lawless frontier.” He dismissed the many piracy battles that consumed the first filmmakers, claiming that “ethics seldom transplant. They must be raised from seed, in each new field.”¹ Ramsaye’s conclusion may have been right—new media require new ethics—but he overlooked the process through which media ethics are updated and rethought when he swept piracy battles under the carpet. It is in the debates over piracy that we see new media breaking away from the old. Piracy wars veil contests to...

  7. 2 HOLLYWOOD’S GOLDEN AGE OF PLAGIARISM
    (pp. 59-107)

    Copyright law protects original expression. Of course, many critics of copyright law have argued that originality is overrated or that it does not exist at all. But even if we accept uncritically copyright’s claim on originality, we might wonder how the law can regulate the creative output of an industry like Hollywood, which has, throughout its history, actively worked to standardize its products, to keep things relatively unoriginal. Since the earliest narrative films, the majority of movies have been adapted from literature, drama, cartoons, news stories, or some preexisting idea. Starting in the mid-1910s, Hollywood standardized its film output by...

  8. 3 AUTEURISM ON TRIAL: MORAL RIGHTS AND FILMS ON TELEVISION
    (pp. 108-154)

    The year that Charlie Chaplin initiated his lawsuit against the imitator Charles Amador, Chaplin’s good friend and business partner, Douglas Fairbanks, launched a lawsuit of his own. Like Chaplin, Fairbanks used copyright law to increase American filmmakers’ power and control over their work. The Fairbanks case involved a few films that he made at the beginning of his movie career. In a contract with the Majestic Motion Picture Company, Fairbanks had included a provision stating that the legendary D. W. Griffith was to direct all of the films in which he appeared. Griffith did indeed proceed to work on—even...

  9. 4 HOLLYWOOD’S GUERRILLA WAR: FAIR USE AND HOME VIDEO
    (pp. 155-200)

    In 1976, Congress passed the first new Copyright Act since 1909. The new act brought many changes to the law, but the biggest change may have been contained in a very small section—little more than a paragraph—that codified the doctrine of fair use. Judges in Britain and the United States had been developing the fair use doctrine in various forms since the eighteenth century, using it to explain instances when one author or artist could use the work of another without asking permission. But despite its long history in case law, the inclusion of fair use in the...

  10. 5 DIGITAL HOLLYWOOD: TOO MUCH CONTROL AND TOO MUCH FREEDOM
    (pp. 201-235)

    In the early 1990s, Warner Home Video president Warren Lieberfarb was the first executive in Hollywood to see the full potential of the DVD format. As he met with his counterparts at other studios and convinced them to adopt the DVD, he also convinced them to learn from the mistakes they had made with the VCR. This time, Hollywood would not play catch-up to small rental stores; DVDs would be sold at consumer-friendly prices, encouraging direct sales over rentals. Hollywood would not endure another format war either; the studios joined a consortium of technology, media, and software companies that all...

  11. CONCLUSION: THE COPYRIGHT REFORM MOVEMENT
    (pp. 236-242)

    “Copyright lobbying is not a sport for amateurs,” proclaimed legal scholar Jessica Litman after the passage of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Litman neatly and accurately summarized the previous 300 years of copyright history.¹ But things have changed since 1998. The internet has brought amateurs into the process of policymaking in important ways. First, it has greatly expanded the range of creators and consumers who have a direct stake in copyright law. Amateur video artists who uploaded their movies to YouTube, college students who receive “settlement letters” from movie studios, and early adopters of new video technology feel...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 243-274)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 275-288)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 289-290)