The Fair(y) Use Godmother and her Very Digital Wand

By: Navnidhi Sharma

Howard Besser has made a case for ‘Information Commons’ as a critical space for creative repurposing, reinterpretation and copying of pre-existing material for generating new commentary and work. He warns of the threat to this space by the content industry that employs increasingly stringent copyright regulation to delimit creative content to its economic context, thereby marginalizing divergent voices and undercutting its potential for fostering creativity. A situation where: “our modern surrender of the age-old concept of shared culture to the exclusive interests of private owners has relegated our population to spectator status and transformed our culture into an economic commodity.” (Negativland)

The onset of the digital was perceived as a potential disrupter in the balance of negotiations between users and rightsholders. In response, the content industry has attempted a tightening of hold over copyright. Companies put considerable effort behind the passing of legal regulatory provisions which tighten and expand regulation and copyright control. This article puts digitality into conversation with issues of copyrighting, appropriation, subversion and interactive media through the case of A Fair(y) Use Tale (2007), a digital remixed collaborative film.

The Curious Case of Disney

Disney has been one of the staunchest supporters of copyright and digital regulation, with decades of litigation history behind them. In the 1960s, they sued and won against cartoonist Dan O’Neill for creating a minor mouse character in a satirical comic. In 1998, they threatened litigation against a French AIDS awareness campaign for advertisements showing Snowhite and Cinderella in allegedly “seductive” poses. Disney was also among one of the major lobbyists for the Digital Millenium Coyright Act and the Sonny Bono Term Extension Act to protect their copyright over characters such as Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck which was due to expire soon. (for more details, see Besser). Unsurprisingly, Disney has proved extraordinarily pliable when “infringement” has benefited the company, as in the case of Frozen which proved a “template for how to thrive in a digital, copy-promiscuous, consumer-empowered environment” (Leonard)

Disney’s case is particularly ironic since the company has based its success on a reimagining of pre-existing creative content; adapting folklore and legend for their own economic gain while effectively preventing others from partaking in the same creative freedoms.

The Subversive Politics of A Fair(y) Use Tale

The efforts of corporate behemoths like Disney both hide and highlight deep anxieties about the subversive impact of the digital on rightsowners’ control over activities of production, distribution and overall revenue generation. The digital is a disruption that has created such insecurities, and at the same time, provided the means to subvert them. (of course the insecurities emerge only because there is potential for subversion. The situation is a ‘chicken and egg’ one- multi-directional and mutually reinforcing).

A Fair(y) Use Tale compiles hundreds of unlicensed animated Disney clips to illustrate copyright infringement provisions. It is a cheeky statement that mobilizes Disney’s own content to comment on copyright laws that have been extensively utilized by companies like Disney to turn creative work into a controlled commercial commodity.

The Digital Challenge: A Fair (y) Use Tale as Interactive Media

However, the film is significant for more than its subversive politics. On one hand it draws attention to issues of fair use, tensions generated by media as a regulated object, and the implicit economies of its legal and shadow distribution. On the other, it highlights how media, especially in its disembodied digital state, constantly slips through control, proliferates and is reconfigured. It is therefore useful to question how  A Fair(y) Use Tale finds a place in interactive media practices, to glean a glimpse into the fluid and expanding boundaries of interactive media as a category that can accommodate a diverse range of projects within its ambit.

A simple understanding of interactive media is to see it as: media practices that give the audience space to interact with the media in its direction and construction. As a broader concept, however, it encapsulates diverse logics emerging from the digital. And A Fair(y) Tale Use is very much a digital endeavor- it emerges from a digital conundrum (the tensions between increased threat of proliferation and tightening control), uses digital technologies to be created (by reconfiguring the narrative structures and temporalities of earlier films), and distributed (internet primarily); and ultimately furthers the politics of digital and creative freedom.

In A Fair(y) Use Tale, the interaction is within the components and meanings of the artwork itself-  through the process of repurposing and splitting it away from its original/intended meanings. Original meaning is both appropriated, and reconfigured. This enables the media to interact with (and within) itself, making it more self-reflexive. Such shifting meanings are evocative of Dinkla’s concept of ‘floating work of art’ wherein “boundaries between different layers of reality and the various concepts of the subject, are now in flux.” As Dinkla further envisages, this art “develops strategies of ‘recombinant poetics’ (Bill Seaman), where meaning is only created by the changing ‘coming together’ of image, text, language, sound and movement.”

It interacts also with its author figure(s)- both original authors and subsequent ones (now prosumers). At the level of audiences, it plays on audiences’ familiarity with the artworks in their original, and with the repurposed forms. The digital therefore enables the original audience to assume active authorship (prosumership), and participate in the process of creation. Such fluid roles are also seen in cases of subtitlers and other such participatory cultures, and is at the heart of digital processes of production, repurposing and  distribution. Indeed, in this complex sense, A Fair(y) Use Tale finally comes closer to the simplest definition of an interactive media project where the audience switches places with the author. The film exemplifies how “the reduction in the degree and compass of authorial control invites us to reconsider existing models of cinematic spectatorship and narration within new contexts of mobility, performance, and collaboration.” (Marina Hassapopoulou)

The story of A Fair(y) Use Tale is not very far from the well-known transformative tale of Cinderella (ironically also one of Disney’s most popular adaptations). Except this time, she returns armed with the prowess of the digital. And she bites. No mere costume changes for this Cinderella.

References:

Dinkla, Soke. “The Art of the Narrative- Towards the Floating Work of Art.” New Screen Media. Cinema/Art/Narrative. Eds. Rieser, Martin & Andrea Zapp. London: British Film Institute, 2002

Faden, Eric. “A Fair(y) Use Tale.” The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies. Eds. Eduardo NavasOwen GallagherXtine burrough. New York: Routledge, 2017. 487-494.

Faden, Eric. “A Fair(y) Use Tale.” Center for Internet and Society Blog at Stanford Law School, 2007. http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2007/03/fairy-use-tale (accessed October 28, 2017)

Hassapopoulou, Marina. “Reconfiguring film studies through software cinema and procedural spectatorship.” NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies 3.2 (2014)

“Magic Wand.” The Disney Wiki. Fandom Movies Community. http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Magic_Wand (accessed  28 October 2017)

Leonard, Andrew. “How Disney learned to stop worrying and love copyright infringement.” Salon, Salon Media Group Inc., 23 May 2014, https://www.salon.com/2014/05/23/how_disney_learned_to_stop_worrying_and_love_copyright_infringement/ (accessed  28 October 2017)

Negativland. Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, Concord, CA: Seeland, 1995.

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