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. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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