Vampires And The Paradox Of Copyright

Understand this:Copyright does not exist so people can make money.[1] Copyright exists so we the people -- i.e., humanity at large -- can enjoy the benefits of new discoveries, new inventions, new artistic expressions. Thing is, it costs money to make those discoveries / inventions / expressions.  So to fund said benefits the government/s grant/s a limited time copyright to the innovator to solely control said discovery / invention / expression. In practical terms, this means charge a fee for other people to use it. All well and good, but the copyright holder doesn’t really own the discovery / invention / expression the way someone who owns a house owns it.  Rather, the owner is the public (as in public domain) and the innovator merely gets first crack at benefiting from it.

Bram Stoker was not the first writer to pen a novel about vampires[2] but Dracula sure became the brand definer.  However, while his 1897 novel was critically acclaimed and sold well at the time, it was not an instant hit and was well on its way to being forgotten by the time Stoker died broke, leaving his wife in poverty.

So she was not some fat cat who could easily afford it when an upstart German film company decided to rip off her husband’s idea in 1922.  In the time honored tradition of plagiarists everywhere, they changed a few key details (names, locations, but most importantly the central character’s appearance & the ending of the story) and started rolling.

Mrs. Stoker, when she learned of this, was Clearly Not Amused & so she sicced the law on ‘em.  After a protracted legal battle that cost her greatly, the courts ordered all prints of the film destroyed.

As far as can be determined, Mrs. Stoke never saw a pfennig from the German rip-off artists…

…but she ended up making a fortune off of them.

The publicity re-kindled interest in her husband’s book and other works.  A play was written and performed -- after paying her a hefty licensing fee -- and it went on to be a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came a’callin’ and the then-current stage Drac soon found his name up in lights, forever linked with the role.[3]

So Mrs. Stoker & the literary reputation of her late husband had a happy ending…

…but what about the rip-off artists?

Ahh, here’s where the story -- and the ethics / morality -- become muddled…and interesting.

There is no doubt they cribbed a lotta ideas from Stoker, but plot aside, much of what they cribbed had either been folklore already common to the vampire mythos or ideas Stoker himself had lifted from Varney and other sources.[4]

What they added was significant, however; their vampire was no charming Eastern European count but as depraved and as debauched a monster as one could care to imagine.  Further, unlike Drac who could offer the chance of eternal life,[5] their vampire was a much more traditional sociopathic entity who existed only to consume others.

Getting seduced by Drac is understandable, even logical to a certain degree, but letting Count Orlok have his way with you goes on beyond creepy, well past perverse, and into the genuinely horrifying & frightening.[6]

In short, this movie rang a lotta bells & punched a whole lotta buttons with audiences all over Europe when it was released, and it stayed & took root in a lot of people’s minds…

…including artists and writers and film makers.

When Universal began cranking out their horror classics in the 1930s, the unauthorized silent film was a major template in the minds of those who had seen it or stills from it.  And while debonair Drac remained the cultural icon of the un-dead for the 1930s and 40s, the influence of this film lurked just beneath the surface, cropping up on radio and in comics with increasing frequency.

Pretty remarkable when you consider every print of the movie had been ordered destroyed!

But like all interesting vampires, Nosferatu came roaring back from the dead, in this case in the form of a single print that a collector had spirited away before the rest were consigned to the acid baths.[7] By the 1950s it was back in heavy rotation on the film society / collector circuit in grainy washed out prints, then on the pages of various monster movie magazines in the 1960s and 70s, and then on public domain video tapes and DVDs.

Ahh, that lovely, lovely phrase: Public Domain

You see, in a very real sense Dracula stopped being Bram Stoker’s property the moment he released it into the wild.  The moment he turned it loose, the moment other people began reading it, the cultural matrix of what we meant by “vampire” was forever altered.

This is not to say previous or non-Stoker vampyric creations were abolished, but that Stoker in the very act of creation had been forced to use collaborators, and those collaborators -- however minusculely at first -- used Stoker’s input to change the cultural gestalt that made Dracula possible.

Those collaborators were his audience.

Great art changes the way we as a culture perceive things.  This is not always a welcomed thing; history is replete with intellectual pioneers who died ignominious deaths -- in poverty at best, martyred at worse -- because they colored outside the lines.

But strong ideas stick, and more importantly, strong ideas spawn other strong ideas.  This is why we have copyright in the first place:  To encourage the generation and spread of ideas for the benefit of all.

Copyright was never, and is never to be used to destroy or thwart the expressions of counter ideas.

And say what you like about the morality / ethics / business sensibilities of Nosferatu’s producers, the guys they hired to make their film (director F. W. Murnau, screenwriter Henrik Galeen, and most importantly actor Max Schreck) brought an enormous degree of talent, insight, and ability to the project.  As dubious as the financial integrity of the project may have been, the artistic integrity is indisputable.

And they, like Stoker before them, lost control of their creation the moment a projector’s light hit the first frame.

Without Nosferatu we wouldn’t have Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot or the various mini-series based on it, we wouldn’t have the delirious lunacy of Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro (much less Mystery Science Theater 3000’s hilarious take down of the English dubbed version Samson vs. the Vampire Women), we wouldn’t have Werner Herzog’s brilliant remake Nosferatu The Vampire, or the tongue in cheek re-imagining of Shadow Of The Vampire with William Dafoe earning an Academy Award nomination for his take on Max Shreck / Count Orlok.

And we certainly won’t have any of the hundreds of works that are going to be influenced in whole or in part by those examples.

This is the fine balancing act that must be maintained between encouraging innovation and rewarding non-creators with the fruits on their non-labors by destroying the efforts of genuine innovators.

Today we are seeing wealthy multinational corporations use their influence[8] to extend copyright beyond all reasonable lengths in order to continue lining their own pockets without adequately compensating the creators and innovators who did the actual work[9] and actively suppressing anyone who seeks fair use of ideas and concepts that should have long since passed into the public domain.

Many creators today are angry at people who copy and trade their work digitally via peer-to-peer networks, but that anger is misplaced.  The audience is not the problem; the audience, as noted above, are the genuine owners to the material.  The problem is that non-human entities (i.e., corporations) exploit the work of human innovators and the right of access to audiences to such a degree that digital copying becomes not just a viable option but one bordering on the ethical.

To the corporations, copyright is forever, and audiences are expected to keep paying premium prices for those ideas owned by the corporations, and only those ideas, no new ones conceived by independent creators.

As I’ve posted elsewhere, the solution is obvious, the solution is simple: Universal copyright paid for by digital micropayments every time a consumer accesses the material.

In other words, a level playing field for everyone.

Don’t expect the corporations to embrace this any time soon.

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[1]  It especially does not exist so corporations can make money and, no, Mitt, corporations are most certainly not people.

[2]  =koff-koff= Varney The Vampire =koff-koff=

[3]  And, conversely, forever changing the public image of Dracula.  There have been more faithful renditions of Count Dracula, arguably some better ones, but Bela Lugosi is the pinpoint bullseye from which all other interpretations will be forever judged.  He has, in fact, stolen the character from its creator, kinda like a reverse Frankenstein.

[4]  =koff-koff= The Vampyre by John William Polidori =koff-koff=

[5]  Well, eternal un-deadness…

[6]  Which =SPOILER ALERT= sets up one of the all time great double twist /heroic self-sacrifice endings as the heroine allows Orlok to have his way with her so she can keep him out of his coffin long enough for him to be caught in the sun’s morning rays.

[7]  Seriously; that’s how they recovered the silver from the prints.

[8]  =koff-koff= Bribes =koff-koff=

[9]  If at all.

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