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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