The Private Profit of Public Domain
Written by Winter Trabex
The recent rise of intellectual property laws created, in consequence of its establishment, a way to describe products for which copyrights have expired, or have never been claimed. This led to the creation of what are called public domain works. The first descriptions of public domain products were used by the Romans to describe things that could not be privately owned. These were products of nature (sunlight), things all citizens could share, and things owned by the municipalities of Rome. Today, it is understood that public domain works are simply those things for which a copyright does not exist. It may, at some point in the future, be possible for a company to copyright sunlight itself. Indeed, due to genetic modification of plants, companies already claim copyrights upon certain kinds of seeds.
The difference between public ownership and private ownership has provided a test case for the market to decide which is more profitable. When Alexandre Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers in 1844, it seems apparent that he did not imagine a world in which his story could produced within the space of year, and then transmitted electronically across the world to whomever could access it. For Dumas, the book itself- the first in a series of books called the D’Artagan Romances- was a purpose unto itself. He sought no other end than to tell a story.
Today, his book, with its copyright being expired and never claimed by anyone else, remains open for the public to use. It is legally free to download from the internet by any means necessary. Companies can access the original French manuscript and provide a translation of whatever kind they please, then print the book in however many copies they want. Such companies do not have to pay royalties to Dumas’ descendants. They do not have to ask permission for the use of the book, or haggle with a literary agent or a lawyer over fees due to the author. This makes public domain works very appealing to companies seeking to maximize their profits while minimizing their losses.
As a result of this, numerous book companies have created what are called “classics.” These are generally older public domain works that they can publish at will. The Three Musketeers appears to have been printed an uncountable number of times, together with Dumas’ other widely recognized books, The Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Tracking down all the films and television shows that have arisen as adaptations to The Three Musketeers has proven a bit more difficult. For the sake of brevity, I will list only those which appeared beginning in the 1980′s- this largely due to the fact that the existence of VHS tapes made companies concerned about people recording live television and reproducing or sharing those recordings at will.
In Japan, an animated show called Anime Sanjushi appeared. The show ran from 1987 to 1989. It featured 52 animated episodes. A follow-up movie, Anime Sanjushi: Aramis no Bouken, was made in 1989. This show took several liberties with the storyline of the D’Artagan Romances. Aramis, who in the books was a male man of faith, became a female character who hid her identity to join the musketeers. The overall plot takes place in several months, instead of decades. The historical figure, Cardinal Mazarin, who was featured prominently in the second book in the series, Twenty Years After, does not appear in the series or the movie at all.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. The examples given here are only put forth to illustrate the fact that the story has been told and re-told over and over. People who like watching TV shows and movies have apparently not given up on the same story reappearing over and over. Even though the story may generally be known, even though the plot is spoiled from the very start, consumers still buy tickets, turn on their televisions and/or download content made around the books Dumas has written.
The unseen effects here are so noteworthy that it is difficult to see how they are not mentioned. For each production, an actor, an animator, a director, a producer, an executive, a cameraman, a stunt coordinator and a host of other people involved in the production of shows and movies all had employment where they previously did not. The incentive for companies to produce public domain-based entertainment provides work for a host of people who might not otherwise be employed.
Nor does my list mention all the plays and movies which took place before the 1980′s. It seems that at least once every decade, there was some medium or other that told the tale of The Three Musketeers. In these ventures as well, money was made. People were employed. The economy as a whole benefited.
The opposite case- that of copyright laws restricting production or reproduction of any work under a copyright- can be found in the book The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. Published in 1984, the book was accepted by the Naval Institute Press, which was then by no means a publisher of fictional works. The book received a video game adaptation in 1988 and a movie adaptation in 1990. Since then, no reproductions have been made. No modernized movie adaptations of the book, perhaps without the Soviet Union involved, have come forth, either in television or in the movies.
It may be worth noting that the 1990 movie adaptation made an estimated 170 million dollars in profit worldwide.
What then, might be said in favor of copyright laws? While they do keep money coming in to the person who originally produced the movie, book, music or other product, such laws also prevent a host of other people from gaining work. These laws, instead of helping companies make profits, appear to instead hinder the profit margins of movie companies by disincentivizing them in the form of large royalty payments.
If a company is sure they will make enough money so that the royalty payments can be considered a necessary expense, they may go ahead with the project. This is what occurred when eight Harry Potter movies were made. An American movie based on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo appears to have made a more modest profit of 12 million. No movie for the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, has been announced or planned. In Sweden, all three of Larsson’s books in the series were made into movies- primarily because the movies were more profitable there. The Swedish version, a film called Män som hatar kvinnor, made a profit of 17 million in Sweden and Denmark combined.
It may easily be seen then, that copyright laws prevent the market from discovering which products sell the best in which location. When they are not able to be reproduced, both successes and failures in business are prevented. Public domain, on the other hand, provides for such a string of material that the product becomes ever more refined over time. When different companies are allowed to experiment in different ways with the same story, it soon becomes evident which version is more popular. Thus, consumers have their choice of purchasing or downloading the product that they like best.
With all of this in mind, it is somewhat odd to discover that organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) continue to be staunch supporters of copyright laws and anti-piracy laws. What they themselves do not appear to understand is that they, as companies who are in the business of making money from the production of movies, could experience much more profit than they do today if they allowed copyright laws to fall off the books. Everyone keeps going to see Bruce Wayne’s parents killed in Gotham City, after all.
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