29 March 2005

Children's Crusade

In a no-doubt unintentional bit of cognitive dissonance, today is the argument in MGM v. Grokster, concerning the theft—and that is the correct word—of musical recordings via the Internet, and who may be liable for that theft; and the alleged theft of ideas by Hollywood. I find it sort of interesting that the Solicitor General's brief on behalf of the Register of Copyright follows our argument in Ellison on that same issue so closely, but maybe all that proves is that the contours of the doctrinal dispute are relatively clear.

The dissonance comes from "Historical Epic Is Focus of Copyright Dispute" in the NYT, an item which no other major paper seems to have picked up. Perhaps this isn't surprising, as the item concerns infringement claims by the son of the NYT's editor. Basically, the claim is that someone did some substantial research on an obscure figure of the Crusades, and dropped some references to that research into his book on the Crusades. Along comes Ridley Scott with a Crusades film that includes that obscure figure as a major character. Scott is a fine director who is famous for "never reading anything." He says so himself. Repeatedly. I find it a bit interesting, though, that so many of his films turn on a critical idea that is parallel to another source that probably can't afford to fight back (for example, compare Alien to "Black Destroyer," a novella that formed a major segment of A.E. Van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle, which eventually ended up costing the studio a pittance).

In any event, this mismatched pair implicates some interesting questions about "ownership" and the two-year-old's reaction thereto ("Mine!"). On the one hand, we have a group of defendants with guilty consciences (why else would they move from the Netherlands to a South Seas banana republic?) who want to enable a large group of two-year-olds to steal from some much bigger and nastier two-year-olds while evading any responsibility for what happens when they leave loaded guns lying around the house, leaving the people who actually made the property in question out of the equation entirely. On the other hand, we have a two-year-old trying to expand the scope of his "idea"—an idea drawn from historical records, mind you, and not nearly as original as an alien that acts like a wasp in laying its eggs in living prey—from a minor point in his book to another two-year-old's entire film.

In case you hadn't figured it out, I don't think there are any winners here at all. None.