IP issues for cult campy horror movie

October 29, 2010
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Reporter Rebecca Berfanger wrote this blog post.

October, particularly Halloween weekend, seems to be the one weekend where it’s OK to dress up as a character or object or whatever and, for some, not just to “dream it” but to “be it.” Or at least dress like you want to “be it.”

And if you get that reference, you’re probably a closet or maybe a not-so-closet fan of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” now in its 35th year since Tim Curry first appeared on screen in high heels, while a young Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick portray a lost couple trying to get out of the rain after their car breaks down before chaos ensues.

That’s obviously the G-rated summary, but you get the idea.

After countless midnight screenings of the movie, I wonder if any law students or lawyers in those audiences ever wondered how is it the “shadowcasts” who dress as the characters and lip sync or sing along with the characters on screen get away with it? Isn’t that copyright infringement – or should it be? If anyone did wonder this, they likely forgot about it as soon as they noticed the lips singing “Science Fiction/Double Feature” and readied their rice for the wedding scene.

The article, “Intellectual Property and Americana, or Why IP Gets the Blues,” by Michael J. Madison, written a few years ago, sums it up pretty well.

“There is no suggestion that … the owner of the film’s copyright has tried to stop or to license fan-based theatrical performances. In fact, the copyright owner benefits handsomely from licensing terms that base royalties on a percentage of gross sales. The owner has likewise at least implicitly accepted the legitimacy of an abundance of fan-based websites, books, and fan fiction, when copyright law might have sustained suits to enjoin them. … Having licensed exhibition of the film, the copyright owner has little ground for protest if fans dress in character and get up and dance in the aisles,” Madison wrote.

In other words, it’s more to the film’s copyright owner’s financial benefit to let the show continue as it has. The owner still makes money from the theaters and the film’s cultish following only continues to grow as more audiences discover it.

But that doesn’t mean everyone is happy with the arrangement:

“Of course, theater owners might protest if they have to sweep up the breadcrumbs and rice, and today, at least some owners prohibit the water pistols and water balloons that were an integral part of early performances,” Madison wrote, adding that now that the DVD is available for private showings, it’s also possible for fans to host their own screenings, even with toast and popcorn and call backs to the screen.

Considering Tuesday’s “Glee” episode featured songs from the film, there’s a good chance yet another generation will want to check out the “live” version of the film to see what all the fuss is about. And those fans will also likely not face suits over copyright infringement.

During a recent interview with Indianapolis IP solo attorney Kenan Farrell, I asked him about this phenomenon.

“If the copyright owners clamped down on the shadowcasts 25 years ago, would it be what it is? Instead, there’s a cult following,” he said, and he pointed out that the film’s screening at the Indianapolis Museum of Art this summer was packed, and had a wide variety of people in the audience, ranging from 18 up to at least 60 years old.

The fan site lists upcoming Halloween screenings under “Special Showtimes,” including a few in Indiana this weekend.

Do you plan to celebrate Halloween with a “Rocky” screening? What other movies could use a similar treatment with shadowcasts, call backs, and props?
 

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  1. I just wanted to point out that Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Senator Feinstein, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and former attorney general John Ashcroft are responsible for this rubbish. We need to keep a eye on these corrupt, arrogant, and incompetent fools.

  2. Well I guess our politicians have decided to give these idiot federal prosecutors unlimited power. Now if I guy bounces a fifty-dollar check, the U.S. attorney can intentionally wait for twenty-five years or so and have the check swabbed for DNA and file charges. These power hungry federal prosecutors now have unlimited power to mess with people. we can thank Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner and Diane Feinstein, John Achcroft and Bill Frist for this one. Way to go, idiots.

  3. I wonder if the USSR had electronic voting machines that changed the ballot after it was cast? Oh well, at least we have a free media serving as vicious watchdog and exposing all of the rot in the system! (Insert rimshot)

  4. Jose, you are assuming those in power do not wish to be totalitarian. My experience has convinced me otherwise. Constitutionalists are nearly as rare as hens teeth among the powerbrokers "managing" us for The Glorious State. Oh, and your point is dead on, el correcta mundo. Keep the Founders’ (1791 & 1851) vision alive, my friend, even if most all others, and especially the ruling junta, chase only power and money (i.e. mammon)

  5. Hypocrisy in high places, absolute immunity handed out like Halloween treats (it is the stuff of which tyranny is made) and the belief that government agents are above the constitutions and cannot be held responsible for mere citizen is killing, perhaps has killed, The Republic. And yet those same power drunk statists just reel on down the hallway toward bureaucratic fascism.

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