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Copyright Protection For Me but Not For Thee

November 13, 2013 in Economics

By Ryan McMaken

Today’s Mises Daily offers an interesting lesson in interest-group politics. Filmmakers weren’t always busy suing little old ladies and children for downloading movies. Indeed, once upon a time, filmmakers were busy claiming that intellectual property laws didn’t apply to the source material for movies:

In 1907, director Sidney Olcott released Ben Hur. The silent film was based upon a novel published about 30 years earlier, a fact to which Olcott happily admitted. However, the filmmakers never received permission from the book’s author to do so. The author’s publisher responded with a lawsuit, insisting that moving pictures based upon copyrighted fiction should be treated under the law as a “stage representation,” thus necessitating the author’s permission for use. The lawsuit was the first of its kind and attempted to clarify at last the industry’s obscure property conflict. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its first ruling two years later: it agreed with the book publisher.

Olcott strongly contested this ruling and made it clear that film was a unique medium on which he spent significant time, money, and energy producing the work regardless of its inspiration. He claimed that his film was “only an ‘exhibition of pictures,’ and not a dramatic performance within the meaning of the copyright law.”[1] Alas, he didn’t convince the court. Many people were disappointed in the ruling’s ambiguity, though, which permitted Olcott’s production of the film but not his presentation of it. In other words, “The court draws a decided distinction between moving pictures on the film and moving pictures projected on screen. It seems that a moving picture film is a photograph” — which could not infringe on a book — “while a projection of the same film may be a dramatization.”

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