There is a new movie coming out, but you might not be able to see it.
I am not talking about the official sequel to the ToddPhillips film. A crowdfunded Toronto International Film Festival selection was pulled at the last minute due to rights issues. A trans woman is trying to break into the world of stand-up comedy in The People's Joker, a film that retells the Batman villain's origin story as a trans woman trying to break into the world of stand-up comedy. The trailer describes it as an illegal comic book movie, but its creators are more serious about defending it as a parody of DC's original character, to the point of giving their lawyer a full-screen credit.
I don't know if The People's Joker is a good movie because my colleague couldn't catch it at the festival. The piece is a provocation designed to thumb its nose at DC's copyright, and DC parent company Warner Bros. hasn't said whether it actually ordered TIFF to cancel showings Despite all that, one thing is very clear: no one benefits from shutting down The People's Joker, not the filmmakers, not the public, and not the people who created Gotham City in the first place.
People build on pop culture because it is a common language.
Vera Drew made The People's Joker because she wanted to find out if beloved fictional universes are a shared modern mythology and people draw meaning from them. Drew says that if the purpose of myth is to learn about the human experience and grow, then let's actually do that with these characters.
Grant Morrison compares a criminal clown to an ancient deity, but he isn't touching the "modern myths" argument. People use it to learn about themselves and communicate new ideas to other people. Drew said she wanted to be the film's female lead, not its male hero, when she watched a kiss in Batman Forever.
It is natural for people to build on stories and characters that helped form them as humans. The experience of growing up with these characters is shared by every generation. Most of us have been on this planet for less than 80 years. Only on the terms of the media company can it be encouraged.
In order to understand these terms, we need to talk about a fight much older than superhero comics. It is not the most obvious line to draw from a movie about a villain doing stand-up comedy. It isn't just about the laws. Culture is supposed to be.
Lewis Hyde describes two ways to look at culture. It should be like private land according to the first view. When an artist makes something, they have a lot of rights. The owner can make a lot of money and prevent people from using it in ways they don't like. Not being able to dump toxic waste in your backyard is the equivalent of not being able to limit limits. It's easy to violate those rules and steal.
There are two different ways to look at art.
As the book suggests, culture is a common good. Artists aren't working in a vacuum, and art gets better when people are free to respond to each other's ideas It is useful for artists to have a period of time where they can keep control over their work and make more money. The ultimate goal is for art to be part of a conversation and for people to use it for their own work.
Copyright protects art from people who don't like it. It should be fixed if it isn't made better from the second.
There are narrow exceptions to modern US copyright law. The works are slowly passing into the public domain after a 20 year freeze. When stories are in the public domain, they are still being manipulated by confusing, specious suits over things. The exemption for fair use of copyrighted works is supposed to allow people to make changes to work. Artists are required to risk a lawsuit based on a case-by-case weighing of legal pillars.
The idea that fair use only protects non-profit art has left many assuming they can only work for free. Projects like The People's Joker are waiting for a possible legal fight because of the uncertainty. It makes platforms overshoot the mark, preferring to shut down fair use work rather than risk being sued.
There are a lot of narrow exceptions in modern copyright law.
It's still possible to make good work under this system. Fair use exceptions allow for parody and commentary. Fan works can be allowed or avoided by some copyright holders. The Organization for Transformingative Works, operators of the Archive of Our Own and a legal defense project for fan creators are examples of rightsholders back down after getting pushback. The work is being done despite the laws.
Who is the system serving? Most of the original creators of classic comic book characters are deceased. Despite decades of lawsuits, the surviving family members of writers and artists who sold their rights to Marvel and DC are not getting any money. How many generations should profit from an artist's work is questionable. After Disney built their empire on the backs of public domain works like Snow White, a new generation of artists can't freely build on the stories they grew up with.
Copyright helps stop offensive spins on favorite stories. This is reflected in the new attempts at unconventional copyright licenses, such as the one that allows creators to lose their licenses if the art is used for hate speech. In the long run, this means that copyright is just a way of censoring. A near-perpetual license to control how people engage with culture is suggested. Alan Moore would like a word with you if you think copyrighted works stop artists from seeing bad works.
I don't have a solution to this problem and it's complex. I am not sure how long a copyright term should last. I don't know what a clearer, more generous fair use system should look like. The book has some compelling ideas. Something has gone terribly wrong if a law meant to protect artists is leaving weird independent movies in limbo.