14 March 2005

Those Are Wendy's Pajamas!

Sorry about all the tangents (this is now 5.4!), but every time I get ready to chop the section on dilution down for a non-law-review audience, along comes a fascinating current case or story that sheds more light on the whole fan fiction issue. Today, I'll be looking at the UK's blatant violation of the Berne Convention, and one of the more egregious copyright grabs in the world. That's right. We're off to Neverland. And, for those of us who believe in intellectual honesty, it's far scarier than that ranch in California… and also involves exploitation of children.

For those who don't know, J.M. Barrie's play Peter Pan is in perpetual copyright in the UK, by act of Parliament, with all royalties (etc.) to go to the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. Leaving aside for the moment whether this is a cynical exercise in a government washing its hands of obligations to fund healthcare under its own laws, and leaving aside for yet longer whether this merely represents Disney getting its just desserts (since Disney's awful, awful cartoon hasn't been shown in the UK, because Disney refuses to pay royalties on what it views as public-domain materials), one must note that opposing this particular grab is more difficult just because it involves something that should benefit sick children. That's a classic strategy of taxation realpolitik: Tie that tax provision to something that it's hard to oppose on public-relations grounds.

In any event, the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital has now announced who it will "authorize" to create an officially sanctioned "sequel" to Peter Pan: prizewinning children's author Geraldine McCaughrean. The article continues with the "funds help the sick children" strategy, noting that

Barrie, whose play was first performed in 1904, left his royalties to the hospital in perpetuity on his death in 1937. The hospital's move is a plan to find a substitute for income from the US copyright, which expires in 2023 and generates nearly all the film revenue. Recent income has been used to buy CT and MRI scanners and subsidise the hospital's psycho-social support for parents.

Note, too, the inaccurate statement of when the US copyright expires(d)—it had expired before January 1, 1976, so it didn't get the benefit of the US change to a life-plus-years scheme.

What's saddest about this is that I can hardly blame Ms. McCaughrean for taking advantage of the situation. Usually, authors are the ones getting screwed by the system; at least this time, the writer of the (equivalent of the) next Star Wars or Star Trek novel looks like getting paid adequately. Of course, this has some interesting implications for fan fiction, too, which I'll try to fold into the overall wrap-up at the end. For now, suffice it to say that activists bitching about excessive copyright terms need only remember that "in perpetuity" is a lot longer than "life plus 70"—particularly as even a first-year law student could tear apart that will, except for Parliament's intervention.

In the end, this proposed "official sequel" really resembles fan fiction more than it resembles anything else. The Barrie play (and succeeding novel, which doesn't remain in US copyright either) have considerable value as a mark. Doesn't that, though, run into problems under the reasoning in Dastar? Well, not exactly; remember that Dastar involves at best a compilation copyright, as most of the material was never in copyright (shot by US government employees) and most of the remainder probably fell into the public domain for failure of copyright formalities. There's a good, and perhaps even compelling, argument that Dastar doesn't reach as far as a single, original work. Or, at least, as far as one whose copyright expired naturally, as has the Peter Pan copyright in the US. Further, there is no indication that it will merely complete work envisioned by Barrie himself, as one might argue excuses the release of all those tangential Tolkein works over the last quarter of a century. (That The Lord of the Rings is itself an example of the copyright-formalities follies just adds a bit of delicious irony to the morning coffee.)

Frankly, that trial out in LA is beginning to look less convoluted than this mess. At least both seem to involve someone who refuses to accept responsibility and grow up.