Thursday, December 24, 2009

How artists and the public benefit from creative works in the public domain

Copyrights were never meant to last forever. But the U.S. government has bent to the will of powerful media lobbyists time and time again to prolong them.
Works coming off copyright provide an opportunity for new artists to reinterpret and improve upon them. Popular works in the public domain have a built-in audience of people interested in seeing new interpretations of familiar stories, music and artwork.
Walt Disney built his media empire by refashioning fairy tales in the public domain as full-length animated movies.
Once in the public domain, artists are free to reimagine works as they see fit without having to get permission from the original creator, their heirs or rights holders. Artists can turn classic stories upside-down with surprising results. They can add contemporary themes or give them life in a new medium.
I’ve touched on this topic in a few times before.

Example 1: Modern artists turning classic fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty into R-rated entertainment for adults.
Comic book illustrator J. Scott Campbell gave some of these stories a sexy spin by turning the heroines into gorgeous vixens. (See above sample and earlier post.)
Artist Jeffrey Thomas gave stories like Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Pocahontas a dark spin. He reimagined these stories as horror tales full of sinister and gruesome elements. (See earlier post.)

Example 2: Old Christmas songs in the public domain can be given new life by musicians and singers.
Consider “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” (2004) by the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan or “Christmas Canon” (1998) by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Both new versions are excellent. (See earlier post.)
Another favorite of mine is James Taylor’s 2004 rendition of “Deck the Halls.” He gives the carol a Renaissance fair flavor that brings it back to its roots. “Deck the Halls” is a Welsh tune dating back to the 16th century. (Check out the song on YouTube.)

Recent examples of older works getting new life are everywhere.
Now playing in movie theaters is “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” based on “A Christmas Carol” (1843) by Charles Dickens. The film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, previously directed “Beowulf” (2007), based on the Old English heroic epic poem, which dates back to at least the early 11th century. Both stories are in the public domain, so anyone can make a movie, play, comic book, painting or other work of art based on them.
The hit Broadway musical “Wicked” (2003) and the book it’s based on are derived from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1900) by L. Frank Baum. Author Gregory Maguire took the public domain book and created a back-story in “Wicked” about the witches of Oz. By doing so, he made some interesting statements about beauty and female relationships.

The benefits of creative works entering the public domain are many.
The public benefits by being exposed to works that otherwise may have been forgotten. The culture benefits from reexamining creative works from different angles to reveal hidden truths.
These things likely wouldn’t happen if artists had to secure the necessary approvals and pay fees and royalties to rights holders for their use.
The public also benefits by not having to expend taxpayer dollars to protect an ever expanding body of copyrighted works, largely held by big media companies.
Unfortunately the works in the public domain are those published before 1923. Everything after that is locked down by copyright extensions.
And the public suffers.

J. Scott Campbell’s sexy reinterpretation of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”;
Poster from the Broadway musical “Wicked”

I’ll cite other examples of new works based on art in the public domain in upcoming posts.

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