Patching the Zeitgeist

It all started with George Lucas.

The man who once wrote that “people who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians” released the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in 1997, using new digital technologies to alter these works of art with bafflingly hideous changes like making Han Solo’s neck jerk awkwardly to dodge a clumsily-inserted blaster shot from Greedo. He altered them again for the 2004 DVD release, the 2011 Blu-Ray release and the 2019 4K release on Disney+, in which Greedo now says “Maclunkey” as he shoots. (Lucas apparently made that change before selling the copyright to Disney.) Obviously, directors had been releasing new cuts of their movies for some time when Lucas decided that, actually, being a profiteering, power-hungry barbarian sounded pretty good, but no one else in the era of home media had ever decided to make the original cuts totally unavailable by legal means and keep them that way seemingly forever. (The original trilogy will enter the public domain at some point, assuming we don’t turn the planet into a charred lifeless husk, but that won’t be for another seventy-something years at minimum.)

In the years since, few others have made the original versions of popular works of art unavailable in quite so calculated and malicious a manner. But in a world where art is increasingly available only in digital formats – and especially one where such art is increasingly stored on faraway servers and streamed to our computers rather than stored on them – the ability of copyright holders to alter or destroy works of art has grown exponentially. There’s Kanye West repeatedly “updating” his 2017 album The Life of Pablo on streaming services after release and Netflix letting Mitch Hurwitz recut the Rashomon-like fourth season of Arrested Development into a chronological order with shorter episodes (the original cut is still available on Netflix, but buried with the trailers). It’s not necessarily a power they frequently flex in obvious ways, at least outside the video game industry. But it’s still a power they have, and it should worry us.

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It’s Not Your Art, It’s Ours

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.

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