Sunday, May 30, 2010

I like artists more than bean-counters. Go figure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about copyright of late, especially as it applies to people other than the ones who actually created something.

I’m doing my own translation of Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Breasts of Tiresias for next year for a slightly different reason than I adapted Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck for this year. In the latter case, I wanted to look at the structure of the play, especially given the manifold possibilities for ordering of scenes, etc. A new version seemed a logical approach, and gave me the opportunity to work with the student dramaturg and assistant director in what I hope was a unique experience for them. For Breasts, however, I think the standard translation in the Benedikt/Wellwarth Modern French Theatre anthology is just fine, but tracking down the rights to that translation is likely to be as difficult as doing my own. Plus, not only can I now say exactly what I think Apollinaire is up to, there’s no royalty to be paid, as he has been dead longer than the requisite 70 years. (We’d still have to pay a royalty on the translation if I didn’t use my own.)

The other day I happened to be wearing the show t-shirt from my production of Six Characters in Search of an Author a few years ago. Here’s a link to: the image we used for the show logo. One of my current students asked about it. I won’t go into the whole story here, but here’s the essence: the painting is by a very well-established artist named George Underwood. How well-established? Well, one indication is that he designed the album covers for David Bowie’s “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust,” Procol Harum’s “Shine On Brightly” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” and the inner sleeve for T. Rex’s “Electric Warrior.” (Trust me, younger readers, that’s a big deal.)

Anyway, I really liked the image, and I was able to convince the powers-that-be to at least check out how much it would cost to get the rights to use the painting, “Boccioni,” in our publicity. So our director of arts information e-mailed him, and within 24 hours she’d received a reply: it would cost us one copy of the poster, one copy of the program, and one show t-shirt. We quickly asked the most important question: what size t-shirt? This is a man who doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone, and he was flattered that a theatre department at a school I’m sure he’s never heard of liked his work enough to use it. As a result, his work was seen by hundreds of people who might not have seen it otherwise: or at least who wouldn’t have known who the artist was. We also made sure to plug his website every chance we got, even though we weren’t required to do so. Maybe somebody with the money to do so buys something there. Everybody wins.

Of course, intellectual property isn’t the only way artists help out those with a legitimate interest. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, for example, every playwright but one (plus a director and two scholars) whom I asked for an interview not only obliged, but re-arranged their schedules as necessary to accommodate my whirlwind research trip to Dublin (with a quick side trip to Oxford). Two of them bought me a pint; one made coffee in his rooms. The sole exception was Seamus Heaney, who had already won the Nobel Prize, and quite justifiably didn’t grant interviews to mere grad students.

I mentioned scholars… the same trends apply to them. When I was writing my dissertation my university invited a major scholar—someone whose name would be recognized by anyone in my business, regardless of specialization—to campus for a series of seminars. I somewhat hesitantly asked him if he might spare a few minutes to talk about a point of intersection between his research and mine. “Of course,” he said, and proceeded to sit down with me for over an hour and a half.

I was asked to teach an acting course a few years ago, and the (award-winning) book I had hoped to use as the primary textbook had gone out of print. While I could, and did, substitute another book, there was one chapter I really didn’t want to lose. So I e-mailed the author to see if I could get permission to photocopy those few pages. His response, paraphrased: “The book is out of print and will apparently stay that way. Photocopy whatever you want; I’m just glad you like it enough to use it.”

Ah, but the people I’ve been describing: they’re the artists, and scholars, and people who create things themselves. Artists’ agents, estates, etc.: another matter. A couple of years after Six Characters, I directed As You Like It and I wanted to use this painting by Maxfield Parrish for our logo. So we dutifully contacted the agent for the estate (Parrish died in 1966)… and they wanted $1500. I suggested that they perform an activity for which both physical dexterity and hermaphroditic tendencies would contribute to the success of the exercise. As it happens, I know something about the condition of the Parrish estate—his hometown is only a few miles from the family homestead—and the $250 or $300 we could have afforded and would willingly have paid would have helped them out a fair amount. I even thought about bypassing the agent and talking to the estate directly, but deadlines loomed and I wasn’t able to pursue that avenue. The result was that everyone lost: the Parrish estate got nothing instead of something, a great artist’s work wasn’t circulated the way it might have been, and, although I was happy with our ultimate logo, we didn’t get to use an image that actually inspired a lot of the concept and the look of the production.

So… now I’m in correspondence with a woman at Music Theatre International. One of my colleagues is directing the classic musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in the fall. For several years our program has assigned students in the non-major Theatre Appreciation class to read the plays they will see as a course requirement. Whether or not this is good pedagogy, the practice has always worked well logistically. Musicals are likely to be harder to work with in this respect (scripts have traditionally been rented instead of sold—don’t ask me why), but of the four musicals in the time we’ve had this policy, three of the libretti were available directly in published versions, and the other had been included in an anthology, so we were able to secure rights to “publish” it in a coursepack.

But How to Succeed has, as far as I can figure out, never been published in the traditional sense of that term. That complicates things considerably, because for whatever reason MTI seems really interested in keeping these scripts out of the hands of the public. And, of course, we can’t go to the artists themselves: lyricist Frank Loesser died in 1969; the book is by Abe Burrows (d. 1985), Jack Weinstock (d. 1969) and Willie Gilbert (d. 1980), based on a book by Shepherd Mead (d. 1994). All we want to do is have a bunch of people who don’t necessarily know a lot about theatre be able to comprehend what they’re seeing a little better in the hopes that they might ultimately like it more: the course is called Theatre Appreciation, after all. And, of course, we’d pay (or have the students pay) a royalty fee to include the text in a coursepack. But MTI, who must surely have had requests like this in the past, is reluctant. Of course, the fact that I can’t figure out a reasonable rationale for their behavior doesn’t mean they don’t have one. And I understand the need to protect the reputation of the product, but I bet they still grant production rights to Millard Fillmore Junior High in Spider Breath, Montana.

The headline-maker this week about copyright was, once again, about the estate of the person involved, not the person himself. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which (inexplicably to me) controls the rights to Albert Einstein’s name and image, is suing General Motors for over $75,000 for using the great physicist’s face superimposed onto the body of an underwear model in a promotional campaign for the GMC Terrain: “Ideas are sexy too.” Get it? The ad ran precisely once, in the “Sexiest Man Alive” issue of People magazine last September. I personally think GM ought to be sued for having such a stupid ad, but in strictly legal terms it appears the car company may have acted in good faith, believing they had bought the rights from “a reputable agency.” Apparently not. Anyway, HUJ, which apparently doesn’t have problems with the famous tongue-out photograph of Einstein, which appears virtually everywhere, believes the half-Einstein/half-hunk image is “not consummate with and causes injury to” the university’s “carefully guarded rights in the image and likeness of the famous scientist, political activist and humanitarian.” Sure they do. It’s really hard to side with a multi-national corporation against a university, but give me a damned break. They don’t give a crap about Einstein’s reputation, only what they can make out of the deal—and ol’ Al still apparently ranks in the top ten earners among dead celebrities.

And finally, I look forward to being, barely over a fortnight from now, in Ireland, one of the most litigious places on the planet. Early in the course which includes a 16-day trip to the Emerald Isle, we read The Colleen Bawn by Dion Boucicault, a champion of copyright law as well as being one of the premiere playwrights of the mid-19th century; he was also, ironically, one of the greatest plagiarists in history. But when we think of Ireland’s contributions to world culture, we think first of 20th-century writers: four Nobel laureates in literature in barely over 70 years a from a country with a population roughly the size of Houston’s. And what do the likes of Yeats, Joyce and Beckett have in common? [N.B., yes, I know Joyce didn’t win the Nobel Prize: go with me, here.] Well, for one thing, their heirs, many of whom have done little if anything with their lives except bask in the steady income generated by their forebears, are positively hemorrhoidal when it comes to anything to do with rights.

The Beckett estate is notorious for shutting down productions that allow theatre artists to do their jobs (God forbid that the scenic designer be given any authority, or that one of the tramps in Waiting for Godot be played by a woman). But at least our boy Sammy himself was equally persnickety.

W.B. Yeats’s heirs are a little difficult to deal with, too, making the current exhibition at the National Library in Dublin all the more impressive. Yeats’s heirs, for example, have refused to allow publication of the version of The Countess Cathleen that was actually performed as one of the premiere productions of the Irish Literary Theatre. We know exactly what that version said (I’ve actually read the hand-edited script of Florence Farr, who played the supporting role of Aleel: it’s in the O’Hegarty Collection in the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas), but the play was revised both before and after production, and the actual performance script has never been published. (Well, technically it was, sort of, but not in a form any casual reader might find useful or enjoyable.) I was asked several years ago to write the introduction to a collection of Irish Renaissance plays. The editor had a contract with a very reputable publisher; he’d chosen the plays to include, including a couple by Yeats (for which he thought he had arranged for publication rights, and he got (understandably) a little grumpy with me that I didn’t finish my 30-page essay until spring break of 2001 when he had wanted it by February. A couple weeks after receiving my introduction, he e-mailed me to say that he liked what I’d done; he’d made a couple of minor stylistic changes and sent the entire manuscript along to the publisher. It still isn’t out. Guess why.

But the High Exalted Executive Omnipotent Poobah of literary estate jackassery is Stephen Joyce, grandson of James. A few of his many adventures in assholitude are chronicled in a now nearly four-year-old article from the New Yorker: he has granted and then withdrawn copyright permissions to letters, for example, threatening lawsuits like a grumpy old man chasing the kids off his lawn. He has thus left scholars with the choice of leaving out entire sections of their work or going ahead without the supporting documentation, making their work seem speculative when in fact it isn’t. Both results are detailed in that rather lengthy article, which, Gentle Reader, you needn’t read in its entirety. He has threatened lawsuits against anyone holding free Bloomsday readings of Ulysses, as if he weren’t going to make pots of money off people buying books because they heard enough to pique their interest. He has whinged that an actor who memorized lengthy portions of Ulysses had probably already violated copyright. Really. He is apparently quite proud of his constipation: “What other literary estate stands up the way I do? It’s a whole way of looking at things and looking at life.” It certainly is. Dubliners’ slang term for the statue of James Joyce leaning jauntily against his cane just off O’Connell Street is “the prick with the stick.” Stephen, apparently, doesn’t use a cane.

So, as I prepare for a third Bloomsday in Dublin, I note with a wry pleasure that next time, 2012, will be over 70 years after James Joyce’s death in 1941. Next year will also mark the figurative demise of Stephen as a major force in Joyceana, although presumably he will still control access to letters and papers which are literally in his possession—he claims to have destroyed some, and threatens to do so to others.

I’m not sure there’s a moral to this story. When They Make Me Tsar, work will enter the public domain faster, but my Tsar-ship still seems well into the future. In the present, we play by the rules. People, even business-people, are allowed to do things that aren’t necessarily in their own best interest. Exercising one’s legal rights is, after all, doing precisely that: doing what one has an explicit legal right to do. But the reason I would never succeed in either business or law is that there’s a difference between being a curmudgeon and just being an ass. At least I hope so. Give me the artist ten times out of ten.

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