Copyright and Me

Canadian copyright law prevents me from posting examples of my ‘published’ work, that is to say, produced television episodes that I wrote, on my own web page on the Internet.

Because I don’t control the copyright.

The same holds true for all the other creative professionals whose creative input went into the work, because a corporate entity holds the rights to all of our combined creativity.  As near as I can tell, the corporation owns these rights by virtue of picking up the tab.

Just as the actors or even the director wouldn’t be able to post their demo reel online without first securing the permission of the corporation that owns the rights to their work. Maybe if you are a really really big star.

Laurel L. Russwurm
circa 1980's

But I understood that going in; it was the price that had to be paid if you wanted your work to be produced. When I was young I was willing to pay that price. 

Of course, back then, that was the only way open to creators.  Massive amounts of capital were required just to make a film or television episode. Copying was very expensive. There was no Internet to make international distribution possible, not to mention inexpensive.

So the film and television companies had absolute control. That’s why there are director’s cuts. The “studio” gets to decide what version of the movie will be released. The director might be putting his/her blood/sweat/tears on the line, but the studio is putting its money on the line. That’s why they call it the movie business.

Money trumps art.

The decisions made by a movie studio or production house aren’t made by creatives, but by money men and marketers. For a feature film, most often the director puts the film together they way s/he thinks best. Then the studio looks at it and decides if that is what will be released or if it needs to be re-cut. You know, when the project is risky – if the movie doesn’t follow an established formula. Anything innovative is always a gamble. Original is not good business.

Creativity is human; corporations are non-creative. Yet it is the corporation that has total control over the creative elements of film making. The studio releases the safest and least innovative movie possible because in that way they hope to attract the widest audience possible. The studio only wants art that will put bodies in theater seats. Ironically, in the same way they sell copies of movies in multiple formats to maximize profits, it is now common to release the “director’s cut” on DVD so they can sell more copies of the same movie.

That good movies still manage to get made is sometimes happy accident but I think more often it is due to the dedication of creatives who fight and strategize their way through the system. Even so, fewer and fewer original movies are coming out of Hollywood. The great original movies I’ve seen over the last few years have been mostly made as independents and only then released under the studio imprint – and distribution. Original is always a gamble; if you make movies from successful novels or comic book series it will attract a guaranteed audience.

This is part of why I think that corporations should not be able to hold copyright. Corporations don’t create art, creative people do. And corporations have been using copyright laws to take control of human culture.

how copyright law has hurt me

My career began in the media industry.  I worked on a variety of projects and got a variety of credits. And there is nothing like seeing the projects you have worked on, in any capacity. Where possible I have video tape copies of some of the projects I worked on.  Some were given to me by the production company.  Others I’ve gone out and purchased.  And there are some projects that I worked on that I have never seen.  It is sad that I’ve never seen the “Hall and Oates and the Nylons” TV special that I worked on as an assistant video editor.

But it is tragic that I have never even been able to view ‘The Dreaming Field’ episode that I wrote for Nelvana‘s animated ‘The NeverEnding Story‘ series. As was my custom, I requested a copy at the time, but I was told by the head story editor it was against corporate policy, and that even he didn’t have cassettes of episodes he’d written.

screen capture of the page offering the episode for download

In the years since writing the script, I’ve only ever found one commercial Neverending Story VHS tape from the series in Canada. And it didn’t include my episode.   But the world has changed. The cost of the technology has dropped, and it is no longer prohibitively expensive to make copies.  In recent years, the Neverending Story series has been made available online as Amazon downloads.  Yay!

Except copyright prevents me from paying $1.99 and downloading a copy of ‘The Dreaming Field‘for myself, because:

Video Playback Not Authorized”

“We have detected that you are not located within the U.S. Due to licensing restrictions, Amazon Instant Video Customers must be located in the United States when viewing videos online.” Neverending Story: Season 2, episode 19, “The Dreaming Field”: Amazon Instant Video

“Licensing restrictions” are part of copyright law.   They call this “copyright protection,” but I really don’t see how this protects me as a creator.   Sure, I was paid for the work.  Over the years I’ve received sporadic tiny incremental sums. “Royalties.”   A much greater percentage of the royalty is paid off the top to the copyright collective that administers these funds, supposedly “on my behalf”.

The argument that is always made in support of increasingly restrictive copyright law is that copyright protects creators.  I don’t believe that.

I wrote “The Dreaming Field” script more than 15 years ago.  Back when copyright terms ran for a mere fourteen years, it would be in the public domain by now. Nowadays copyright terms run for decades after the death of the author. That helps me how?

In today’s world, I still have never had the chance to even see the film made from my script.  Thanks to copyright.

That hurts me.


Why CanCon Hurts Canadian Culture [part 2]

Canadian Film & Television

Many Canadian actors, writers and directors have established a considerable presence in the American movie and television business since the very beginning.

pictured in "Canadian Women in Film"
Canadian Mary Pickford was “America’s Sweetheart”

Talented Canadians have been migrating to Hollywood to make movies for as long as there have been movies. Naturally. If you wanted to be in pictures, that’s where you had to go.

They called her “America’s Sweetheart,” for her movie acting, but she was also a hard headed business woman who was producing her own films early on, going on to co-found United to ensure she maintained her autonomy. Toronto born Mary Pickford, was actually a Canadian girl.

Over time things have changed and today films are made all over the world.

International Acclaim

The National Film Board of Canada became a world leader in documentary film making. NFB documentaries and short films have won many Oscars over the years.

The Sheridan College Animation Program offered at the Oakville, Ontario Campus has long been considered one of the best animation schools in the world – and in fact the prime source of Disney animators. Home grown animation companies like Toronto’s Nelvana produce and export a large proportion of children’s programming globally.

The innovative IMAX film system, now available around the world, was created and developed by the Canadian IMAX Corporation.

On the Home Front

It has traditionally been difficult for Canadian movies and television programming to compete with American fare. Partly because so much Canadian talent has flowed south of the border, but Cancon rules have made it worse by engendering a lack of confidence in Canadian productions .

Initially the fledgling Canadian movie and TV industry was behind in technical expertise. Remember how 1970’s Canadian television programming and films were conspicuous because of the tinny sound? But by the 1980’s the Canadian film and television industry was undergoing change. Thanks in part to the exchange rate which kept the Canadian dollar lower than the American dollar, budget conscious American productions began flowing north across the border.

Today the world acknowledges Canada as the new Hollywood North, boasting a qualified film & TV workforce and decent production facilities. No less a personage than The Terminator er California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has vowed to fight to keep American productions out of Canada (and coincidentally in California).

Night Heat title frame from series opening credit sequence

Although it was a successful prime time Canadian Television series, Night Heat was actually a Canadian/American co-production. Great care was taken to place the series in an unspecified North American city in an attempt to make the series acceptable in both countries. In fact, the only North American City that Night Heat could not have taken place in was Toronto, since in one episode the heroes travel to Toronto for a CN Tower chase scene. Of course in reality Toronto was where the series was actually made.

Economically the Canadian film industry may be holding its own, but that isn’t the biggest problem. Although American driven Canadian productions may employ Canadians they are American productions creating American culture. Even when working on Canadian soil it seems Canadians contribute to American culture.

Due South Title Graphic

Due South was a CBS/CTV co-production. Paul Gross played the incredibly principled Mountie Constable Benton Fraser stationed in Chicago in this dramatic series with a decidedly humorous bent.

Wolf and mountie, the Canadian stars of Due South: Benton and Diefenbaker

Due South was set in Chicago, and Fraser frequently wears the distinctive RCMP red serge uniform in the series, where he works with Chicago police detective Ray Vecchio. Although Fraser and his pet wolf Diefenbaker are usually the only nominal Canadian in the show, there is never any question that Fraser is the hero of the piece.

Although American audiences liked the show, CBS decided to pull out. But because it was a big hit in Canada and abroad financing was found to keep it running for a few more years.

The original Due South story editor, David Shore, went on to create the wildly successful American series House M.D.

House (Hugh Laurie) stares balefully up at the happy face balloon he hold the string to.

Due South series creator Paul Haggis went on to win Oscars for writing and directing the 2004 film Crash.

Haggis clutching Oscars in each fist, stands in front of a 6 foot Oscar

I wrote a bit about the Canadian talent-drain in copycon: the continuing saga.

As with musicians, Wikipedia also has a Wikipedia: List of Canadian Actors.

But it isn’t just actors, there are a great many successful Canadians working behind the scenes in Hollywood as well.

Writers and Directors are just as likely to head for Hollywood as actors are. Naturally there are also lists of Wikipedia: List of Canadian Writers and a Wikipedia: List of Canadian Directors.

Bon Cop Bad Cop poster

Why do so many talented Canadians flock to the States?

Triplets of Belleville poster

Quebec has long had a rich Francophone dramatic film and television tradition precisely because of its distinct language and culture.

This most probably accounts for the fact that many of the best Canadian feature films like The Triplets of Belleville, Bon Cop Bad Cop and Maurice Richard [English Title: The Rocket] and Polytechnique have come out of Quebec.

Quest for Fire, an excellent film set before language as we know it existed was made in Canada.

Maurice Richard  poster

Canadian director Ivan Reitman’s hit film Meatballs was his last Canadian feature before disappearing into Hollywood to make movies like Ghostbusters, Legal Eagles and Twins.   Sometimes Canadians get pretty good English language feature films, like Passchendaele, or Nurse.Fighter.Boy.

Passchendaele poster

An interesting Canadian film I’m looking forward to seeing is Before Tomorrow, the first feature film made by the Women’s Inuit film Collective Arnait Video Productions. I was very impressed with the trailer on the Genie Award site

Canada is sadly in the position of having a single first run movie theatre distribution network for the whole of Canada. Which means there is no competition at all. It’s a monopoly. When a popular Canadian movie like Passchendaele or Bon Cop Bad Cop is released, there is little chance of becoming a blockbuster because these films don’t get the opportunity. Their Canadian theatrical runs are very short.

Interestingly enough, there are no “Cancon” regulations for movie theatres. Particularly since we’re down to a monopoly, wouldn’t this be the perfect place to insist on Canadian content?

Arrow in Flight among the clouds
Avro Arrow: Painting by Lance Russwurm

Canadian television has been producing increasingly good television fare. Like the CBC mini-series The Arrow. Series like Slings and Arrows which has inspired a Brazillian version, Less Than Kind and 18 to Life.

Title graphic for comedy series Less Than Kind

Canadians are capable of creating good movies and television. Why has there been so little of it?

How much of the problem comes down to perception. In spite of all of this evidence to the contrary, Canadians don’t think Canadian television or movies are generally very good. After all, if Canadian film and television was good, there wouldn’t be any need for Canadian Content regulations.

maple leaf leaning left

This perception first makes it hard to raise the money needed to create television or movies, and again to distribute them.

The advent of the Internet has opened up new distribution venues for Canadian film and video. This can only bode well for Canadian Culture.

Great Canadian TV Series: Less Than Kind

A Canadian Movie I really want to see: Nurse.Fighter.Boy.

[Novel permitting, I hope to publish the conclusion of this article Why CanCon Hurts Canadian Culture [part 3] next week.]

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Image Credits:
Mary Pickford photo in the public domain, original made available from Library and Archives Canada: Celebrating Women’s Achievements Mary Pickford photo © Public Domain