Max Headroom and Copyright Law

Max Headroom
Max Headroom

Max Headroom was a great science fiction TV series featuring Matt Frewer in the dual role of intrepid reporter Edison Carter and his virtual alter ego Max Headroom.

Edison Carter: the man with the cam.
Edison Carter: the man with the cam.

Rather grittier than the American remake, the British pilot was much darker overall. Being shot on film, it had much better production values. The biggest difference between the British and American versions was that the British version of the computer genius Bryce was a simply too detached from humanity, and had to be cast with a more accessible actor for the series to work. And even though it was shot on video, because it was idea driven the series worked very well indeed.

Teamwork: Edison Carter and Theora Jones
The Team: Edison Carter, Theora Jones and Max

Edison Carter didn’t tilt at windmills, he was willing to go after any story and would not let it go no matter what pressure came down from above, because the truth needed to be told. Risking his life and career more than once to get the story, Edison Carter was the Man with the cam.

I know I fell head over heels for Max Headroom (and Edison Carter) when they first played Canada in my college days.

(Yes I’m >that< old.)

Max was fun, Edison was sexy.

Theora Jones showed us that women could succeed in the male dominated technology fields. Theora was an awesome role model for young women because she played her computer terminal like a Stradivarius. Theora’s ability to go anywhere and do whatever was needed– including hacking into parts of the net that are supposed to be off limits– made it possible for Edison Carter to get out there and do his job.

Computer Queen
Theora Jones

Theora Jones was extremely smart, totally in control of her video/computer technology, and although clearly attracted to Edison she didn’t take any guff from the guy. Apparently the boys liked Theora… the ogg Theora video format was named for her.

For a brief taste of Max in action, Youtube has this Max Headroom new Coke commercial on offer.

What is incredible is that Max Headroom was ever made at all.

How many REALLY good science fiction TV series have there actually been? Not too many, that’s for sure. The science may not have been spot on, but Max Headroom was incredibly idea driven. The prescience of some of the Max Headroom storylines is almost frightening.

In the world of Max Headroom– which was set “20 minutes into the future”– if governments exist, they are at best ineffectual. In this future world it seems that governments have abdicated their power to the media giants. Max Headroom’s world is run by the TV networks.

Blank Reg: media pirate or freedom fighter?
Blank Reg: media pirate or freedom fighter?

Visually the series has a post apocalyptic look, but even in an urban wasteland populated by “blanks” (society’s drop outs who for one reason or another don’t have an identity number) there are TV sets set up and always running. Blank Reg and Dom broadcast their rogue video signal from their BigTime TV trailer… siphoning electricity and tapping into the internet (although the term has not been coined, the internet certainly exists here) to be able to connect with their freedom loving audience.

Max Headroom: The Human Cast

Our ostensible hero is Edison Carter, star reporter for one of the biggest networks, Network 23.

Although Network 23 gives a pretty good impression of running the world, they live in fear that their biggest account, the ZikZak corporation, will switch to a competing network.

The pilot is the story of Edison Carter’s exposé of the ZikZak “blipverts”, which have the annoying capability of causing the occasional television viewer to explode. Of course ZikZak doesn’t mind the occasional couch potato death, but Network 23 doesn’t want the story to come out. Since Edison is in fact investigating his own network, its actually his own company that attempts to kill him to get him off the story. The chase scene ends when Edison crashes head first into a parking garage barrier. The last words Edison sees are “Max Headroom”. When his mind is later electronically mined to discover just how much Edison Carter actually knows, Edison’s alter ego Max Headroom escapes into the computer network and assumes a virtual life of his own. Because Max Headroom is a virtual infant resident in the internet which connects the world’s computers and broadcasters, his character offers many ways to look at the world of big media and ask hard questions about where society is headed.

Max: all dressed up
Max: all dressed up

Brilliant thought provoking science fiction. It showed us a world made up of:

  • metro cops who seem to have no acquaintance with human rights,
  • organ banks that can’t be bothered to check to see if the bodies delivered (by their version of Burke and Hare) are still breathing,
  • a broadcast media imposing their will on the mainstream of society,
  • along with a wretched marginalized underground society of blanks trying vainly to live in freedom.

In the 1980s it seemed that such a world could never exist. Human rights were a given.
George Orwell’s 1984 was a cautionary tale that could never come true.
We knew not to ever let things get to that point.

Didn’t we?

Max Headroom was cancelled. Max himself lived on for a bit as a Coke pitchman, but even Max couldn’t survive “New Coke”.

Unfortunately, Max Headroom has not been released on DVD. I was able to buy a beat-up second hand video of the British pilot from my local video store (which of course has switched to DVDs). The copyright owners have not chosen to try to release Max Headroom at this point. After all, there weren’t many episodes. They probably won’t make a lot of money from a DVD release. And because of copyright law, no one else can release Max Headroom.

What is incredible is that Max Headroom may be lost forever.

This is one of the tragic effects of copyright law: Max Headroom may disappear from the sum of human knowledge. And that would be a shame. Max Headroom had things to say in the 1980’s that would certainly bear repeating in the early 21st Century. Max Headroom was important to a lot of people. A great deal of creative work and thought and energy went into the creation of Max Headroom. Yet instead of protecting this wonderful work of intellectual property, misguided copyright law may consign it to oblivion.

Copyright law is currently undergoing changes around the world, as well as coming under a great deal of public scrutiny. In some jurisdictions, “due process” allows websites to be cut off of the internet connection purely because someone has made an accusation copyright infringement.

Shades of the French Revolution, Batman!
Or Max Headroom, where due process can take the form of a game show.

One of the questions that the Canadian Copyright Consultation posed was:

“What kinds of changes would best position Canada as a leader in the global, digital economy?”

Canadian Copyright Consultation

Perhaps Canada could show clear headedness in stopping copyright law from being a liability to the works that it was created to protect.

Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother"
Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother"

Canada also has a perfect opportunity to lead the world in international copyright reform. One of the reasons the media giants are leaning so heavily on our government to criminalize personal use copying is because they value the Canadian media market. Canada isn’t as inconsequential as the modern day equivalents of the ZikZak corporation would have us believe. If Canada went emphatically on record to decriminalize personal use copying, Canadian law enforcement resources would be freed up to be able to track actual criminal bootleggers.

Canada has an opportunity to lead the way.

Max Headroom would get along famously with M1k3y. My son loaned me his copy of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. Athough this excellent science fiction novel stars young adults and was written for a young adult audience, “Little Brother” is a rollicking good read even for old adults (which is to say any of us over twenty five). I’m still processing the new ideas it has introduced me to, and there is no chance I can give it a proper review without reading it again at least once more. But I would definitely recommend Little Brother to anyone. I’m planning to head out to hear Cory Doctorow speak at the University of Waterloo on Saturday.

You can check out Matt Frewer’s site , or catch up with the grown up Bryce…er Chris Young’s blog (the teen actor who played the American Bryce Lynch).


8 thoughts on “Max Headroom and Copyright Law

    • Ohhhh… poor max. He looks so sad locked up like that!

      It’s ridiculous that we’ll all be dead before most things come into public domain. What’s even worse is the loss of such good art to the world. Its’ why I talked about Max Headroom here… that show was so important to me, and it pains me that it may be lost forever. (It particularly annoys me that my son is prevented from sharing that important cultural heritage. )

      And its why I talked about Oscar Wilde later… had his work not gone into public domain it would have been lost forever. Which would have been a loss to us all. This madness needs to change. I am hopeful about the future though since I believe that even if my generation continues on its obtuse way, the younger generations coming up will make sure it changes.

    • Wow, I’m flattered.

      But you can still write your own. It doesn’t hurt to see the same story told in different ways. The more people who are talking about it the more people have an opportunity to become aware of the issue. It is awesome (and sad) how close they came to what’s happening now. Reg and Dom are the MH version of pirate bay, eh?

      Max Headroom’s world looks to be precisely the future we’re headed toward at break neck speed. Maybe if enough of us complain about Max not being available on DVD will get the show released. I doubt a modernized version of the series would ever find a space on today’s airwaves (or cable wire). I suspect Max got a green light in the first place because of the computer-animated coolness of the special effects. As soon as the network execs actually started looking past Max’s charm and got a glimpse of the concept the series got pulled.

  1. I may be dating myself as well but I watched it, loved it… thought Blipverts, the microsecond-length advertisements that could make your head explode (courtesy of ZikZak Corporation) were a clever, if no overly subtle commentary on how commercial messaging permeates the media.

    I’m surprised that it’s unavailable. It was unusually prescient and even subversive given the times we’re living in. Pirating video feeds? Exposing corruption? Oh – well perhaps I’m not that surprised then.

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