Do you know what’s puzzling about the divide between ‘legitimate creative works’ and ‘illegitimate creative works’?
The idea that the creator and unique voice of a creative work can be legally prevented from creating it further, and that someone who has never been a part of that project can, without the creator’s consent or permission, continue producing it ‘legitimately’.
To most people, this might sound ridiculous, but that is exactly what just happened on NBC’s Community. Dan Harmon, widely acknowledged as the unique voice that made this small show great, has been fired from his own series, being replaced by two new showrunners who have never even worked on the show.
We have allowed creatorship to be divided from ownership in Hollywood, in some pretty ugly ways. The creators of a work aren’t owners, in television. They’re hired hands, kept on as long as the ratings are up and the studio can’t get away with replacing them with someone who would bend to their vision for the show. The owners of the copyright are executives who are using the work to make money, not creators making art. Now, that seems to be the only way to make it work, considering the rigours and expenses of production, but it’s still ugly.
Which begs the question: How, creatively, will Community‘s fourth season be anything more legitimate than fanfiction? It may have a bigger budget and Sony’s approval, but how can it be any more legitimate than Fredrik Colting’s unauthorized and unwanted sequel to Catcher in the Rye? It will be a season of television untouched by the unique voice that gave it life, and especiallly, run by two people who have never written a page of it in their lives.
Rights-owner authorised fanfiction, at best.
This raises some pretty key questions about copyright law and what we consider legitimate. For example, when ratings were low in Dirty Sexy Money‘s first season, the show was renewed – but the creators were replaced with new showrunners. Those showrunners then ran a season that was thematically opposite to the show, tossing out everything about the show that was appealing and commented on its own world in an attempt to ‘soap it up’, making it, not to mince words, a dumber and lifeless show. I have trouble considering this acceptable.
Or how a studio can buy a brilliant script, then write a new script under the copyright of the one they purchased, preventing the writer from ever making their original work into a reality. How can this be anything but a complete mess of what copyright was meant to be?
There’s something poisonous about the idea of buying legitimacy for a creative work. Copyright was designed to protect creators, after all, and now it seems to have contributed to a world where their works are no longer their own.
What makes something legitimate? Is it the involvement of the creator? The approval of rights owners? The love of the audience? Where does copyright get it right, and where does it get it wrong? These are important questions hanging out in the grey areas, and I’m curious where everyone stands.