Last month, James L. Brooks announced that The Simpsons had decided to pull “Stark Raving Dad”, its classic episode guest starring Michael Jackson. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Brooks said that he and fellow producers Matt Groening and Al Jean agreed to stop airing the episode in reruns, drop it from the show’s streaming service and cut it from future DVD releases. HBO/Channel 4 documentary Leaving Neverland has brought renewed attention to the accusations against Jackson of serial child sexual abuse, and many have had to answer difficult questions about how to relate to Jackson and his work. Brooks et al. apparently felt this was most appropriate for a show that had collaborated with Jackson.
“I’m against book-burning of any kind,” he explained. “But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.”
Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, most people would instinctively concede that the producers are perfectly entitled to do with their property what they will. But that’s exactly where they were one hundred percent unequivocally wrong.
The Simpsons doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us.
The idea that art and culture belong to everyone is superficially common and uncontroversial. It’s almost a cliché for authors to say their work “belongs to the readers”, particularly when it comes to interpretation. And, frustratingly, critical and interpretive discourse is more or less the sole area in which the notion of reader ownership is taken seriously. Yes, it’s annoying that sometimes artists still reject disagreeable audience interpretation of their work by evincing a special privilege to explain it, like when Sesame Workshop formally denied that Bert and Ernie are a gay couple. And it’s acutely embarrassing when artists try to control the discussion around their work by vomiting up ex post facto ideas from their brain to “add” to it, like how JK Rowling just announces made-up shit like whether Hogwarts has Jewish students for attention. But, for the most part, stuff like this is just annoying and embarrassing, not consequential. Many (probably most) of the people who profess to believe in authorial “word of god” clearly don’t, as they’ll defer to it when convenient but turn around and spit in an author’s face if they proclaim something they disagree with. They do not need to be debated. You can, as comic book critic Colin Spacetwinks urges us, just call them liars. But it makes for good #content to just constantly rehash this basically settled debate, and so it goes, round and round.
I don’t super care about that idea of audience ownership, not because it doesn’t matter, but simply because it’s so widely accepted and defended that I can afford to put my energy elsewhere. Namely, toward the idea that the audience literally owns art, that it is the common property of humanity and that taking it away from us is therefore theft. George Lucas, of all people, asserted this basic truth in a speech before Congress back in 1988, in protest of corporations colourising black-and-white films. Lucas himself would later become notorious for his Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy, which inserted modern CGI effects into his earlier films, and which quickly became the only available version of those films for most people, as the limited supply of taped copies of the originals decayed into nothing. This may be explained in part by several references to the rights of artists to control their work in his speech, but even Lucas admits, twice, that artists don’t actually own art:
“A copyright is held in trust by its owner until it ultimately reverts to public domain. American works of art belong to the American public; they are part of our cultural history.
The public’s interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests. And the proof of that is that even a copyright law only permits the creators and their estate a limited amount of time to enjoy the economic fruits of that work.”
Copyright is a legal construct originally designed to make practically enforceable the economic rights of workers in the arts to be compensated. It’s been twisted into something else entirely over time, just another tool for giant corporations to make as much money as possible at the expense of the poor, but, either way, copyright isn’t a “real thing” any more than, say, corporate personhood. A lot of processes can be performed more efficiently if the law pretends that a corporation is a legal person in certain contexts, e.g. it’s way easier to monitor a corporation’s activities when it files taxes as a single entity rather than each individual worker filing taxes on their activities as a member of the corporation, separate from their personal taxes. But that doesn’t mean corporations are people, and similarly, a copyright doesn’t actually create real ownership of a work of art, it just allows people to control how and when a work of art is reproduced because that’s the only practical way to get paid for a copiable labour output. No one actually owns art, which is why the destiny of all copyrights is to expire so art can enter the public domain, its rightful home.
I’m sympathetic to the creators of The Simpsons and their desire, perhaps totally sincere and not at all motivated by a fear of bad publicity, to cease profiting from an episode of television made with, and positively portraying, a sexual predator. So, yeah, pull it from reruns and streaming and future DVD releases. But it’s bonkers that they seem to think just locking it away in a vault is the only way they can stop profiting from it, when they could easily render it completely financially worthless and forever prevent anyone from profiting from it in any significant way, by releasing it into the public domain, where it belongs.
And, I should say, that I don’t think The Simpsons creators have chosen not to do this. I’m sure the thought never even crossed their mind, because they really do think it’s their book and they can tear out whatever chapters they want. They really do think of The Simpsons as their property, and no wonder. The ever-expanding lengths of copyright terms all but guarantees that no artist will see their work enter the public domain in their lifetime, so even if you know on some level that eventually it won’t belong to you, it’s not a situation you need to concern yourself with or take seriously as a philosophical and moral concern. That being said, I also think they’d probably reject the suggestion if anyone put it to them. Partly that’s because they want to erase evidence of what they feel is their own complicity in Michael Jackson’s crimes (Al Jean has said he believes Jackson used the episode to groom victims). It’s a cowardly effort to avoid or delay serious conversations about their role in a system that protects and facilitates sexual abuse and violence. Those conversations are essential to combat sexual predation in the entertainment industry because so much of the power that celebrity predators wield over their victims comes from the wilful blindness of their peers, the idyllic adoration of their fans and their usefulness to capital. We must all confront our role in making such abuses possible, and it’s shameful for the producers of The Simpsons to hide away their work with Jackson rather than be honest and upfront about how they helped shore up his public image as a kind of pure, angelic, innocent idol.
But mostly, it’s because to admit that the public has a right to see the episode would be to admit that, fundamentally, their copyright is contingent and subordinate to the common good. That’s a truth that no one who’s made millions in the entertainment industry can afford to admit, because then maybe it was wrong of them to make some of that money and maybe they could be prevented from making more money in the future. Once upon a time, artists were gifted a special protection to ensure they could profit from their labour, but only as long as could be justified in the face of the public’s right to ultimately own the work. But now copyrights holders are largely ruthless profit-seeking entities who’ve given themselves a hundred years or more to continue collecting rent from the world to access their own property. These corporations, are supposed to be guardians, not just exploiters, of the copyrights they own. The art is still ours, and the copyright holders’ ability to get compensation shouldn’t be abused to wring profit at the expense of the public’s ability to access the art that is rightfully theirs. Corporations decide the price of tickets and DVDs, whether movies get home releases at all, and whether they have limited or wide releases in theatres. Whether they skip the cinema altogether and go straight to streaming online. They decide what streaming services get to host their material. They can totally bollock up a work of art, like Disney’s detail-obliterating “restoration” of Cinderella, and face no consequences for what is, essentially, an act of property damage against the entire human race. And they can rob us of access to morally questionable art to dodge difficult discussions of their role in potentially spreading harm through art, as The Simpsons did with “Stark Raving Dad” and Disney did with The Song of the South.
They can make art functionally inaccessible for no good reason, like George Lucas with the original Star Wars trilogy, or so many movies and TV shows locked away in vaults due to music rights. They get to completely deny us the ability to experience art even while abdicating their duties as copyright holders. Even without malice, copyright holders have proven themselves incompetent or indifferent to the enormous duty they hold. They lose and destroy art all the time. Almost all films made before 1929 are lost now, and it’s very likely that unless serious changes happen, we will see similar figures for the first few decades of video games. Even art that has been archived risks being lost forever if it’s not digitised before its physical media break down or disappear or get stolen or damaged.
All of it comes down to the misapprehension, or the outright lie, that copyright holders, or anyone in particular, really, can own works of art. Anything that goes beyond what’s necessary for workers to earn fair compensation is stealing from the entire human race. Perhaps this seems like an extreme reaction to the loss of just one episode of a show with over six hundred episodes. But even one episode is too much – after all, you wouldn’t like it if the author of your favourite book actually tore out a chapter from every copy in existence, would you? Copyright holders have been abusing their position for decades, and it’s time to stop letting them get away with it because we just accept this as “normal”. We should draw a line in the sand and refuse to let them steal any more of our art. We need to claw back what they’ve taken. No more episodes pulled, no more films gathering dust in a warehouse, no more bleeding us for money. It’s unconscionable for corporations to deny us access to our own culture, to destroy it even, in the ravenous pursuit of profit.
They owe us more than that.