Martha Thomases: Copycat Crimes



Passionate and principled capitalists believe in the rights of workers, investors and creative people to reap the rewards of their efforts. If you start a business, invent a new product, or plant in your own field, you should get to keep the profits… after paying your workers fairly, of course. We’re talking about capitalists with principles.

In an ideal world, this can be a good system. I’m motivated to work hard because I get paid in a manner that is equal to my effort and my risk. Because I live in a world in which I, personally, cannot do everything myself, I rely on other people to work hard and get paid so that there are goods and services for me to purchase.

In an ideal world, everyone benefits.

We do not live in an ideal world.

In the entertainment industry, it is more than a little common for major entertainment conglomerates to own the work of the artists who create it. While I acknowledge that these studios and record labels are entitled to a return on their investment in distributing and marketing, I don’t think they are entitled to own the work outright.

They are not entitled to all the profits.

I bring this up because Harry Shearer has brought a lawsuit against Vivendi because of their accounting of the profits from the 1984 movie, This Is Spinal Tap.

You can read about the lawsuit here and hear Harry talk about it here. In a nutshell, the corporation claims that between 1989 and 2006 (more or less), the movie only made enough money to pay the creators a little under $200.

That’s right. The movie has been on television, on videotape, on LaserDisc, on DVD, on Blu-Ray, on cable, streaming and On-Demand for more than 20 years, and it’s only made enough money to let the talent buy themselves dinner at a mid-price restaurant in Los Angeles.

It’s clear that Vivendi didn’t come up with the idea of making a Spinal Tap movie, but sometimes issues of ownership are murkier. Comic book fans such as myself might be familiar with the issues surrounding the work of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. In the 1960s Lichtenstein created a sensation with his paintings that reproduced small comic book panels on large canvas. To quote from the Wikipedia page:

“His most celebrated image is arguably Whaam! (1963, Tate Modern, London), one of the earliest known examples of pop art, adapted from a comic-book panel drawn by Irv Novick in a 1962 issue of DC Comics’ All-American Men of War. The painting depicts a fighter aircraft firing a rocket into an enemy plane, with a red-and-yellow explosion. The cartoon style is heightened by the use of the onomatopoeic lettering “Whaam!” and the boxed caption “I pressed the fire control… and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky… This diptych is large in scale, measuring 1.7 x 4.0 m (5 ft 7 in x 13 ft 4 in). Whaam follows the comic strip-based themes of some of his previous paintings and is part of a body of war-themed work created between 1962 and 1964. It is one of his two notable large war-themed paintings. It was purchased by the Tate Gallery in 1966, after being exhibited at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1963, and (now at the Tate Modern) has remained in their collection ever since.”

Lichtenstein did not pay Irv Novick when he used Novick’s work. Neither did he pay DC Comics, the corporation that owns the work. I’m pretty sure the painting sold for lots of money. Smarter people than I can debate whether or not Novick should have shared in the success of his image. There is also a school of thought that says Lichtenstein changed the image by putting it into a different medium and context, so that his painting was not a duplicate of the original but a comment on it and the society that produced it.

I’m going to leave those arguments to people who know more about copyright law and art criticism than me. I’m pleased to see that Irv Novick gets credit now, which is more than he got in the 1960s.

A lot of people who claim to believe in capitalism seem to lose their convictions when it comes to the work of creative people. There are publishers (digital and otherwise) who ask for free material, saying the artist will benefit from the “exposure” – but not the profits. There are clothing companies that use artwork without paying for it, figuring the artist won’t find out until it’s too late, the garment is on sale, and the artist doesn’t have enough money to sue.

In my opinion, the most heinous examples of the disrespect shown by capitalists to creative people might be legal. I’m referring to political candidates who use popular songs at their rallies without the permission of the musicians who wrote the music or recorded the hit version. This is not technically illegal if the venue has a general music license from ASCAP or BMI, and the artists might make a few cents in profit. But it is gross.

It implies an endorsement by the musician without actually asking for one. It implies an endorsement where there might not be one. It forces musicians to be in a financial arrangement with a candidate with who they might have profound disagreements. It can also confuse the public as to what the musician was trying to say. The earliest example I remember is the time Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Clearly, no one in the Republican campaign listened to any part of the song beyond the title, because the lyrics are quite damning of the military/industrial mindset of the party at the time.

Today, we see many musicians objecting to the Trump campaign using their songs. Trump claims to have a licensing agreement that allows him to play whatever he wants at his events. Perhaps he does, but I don’t see why he keeps playing the music when the artists object. I’ve read so much about how Keith Richards hates him, how opposed to his candidacy Neil Young is, and many others. Real fans of the music will see the candidate denounced by artists they admire.

Why not stick to “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood? It’s on message, it’s catchy (I find myself singing it all the time) and I’m willing to bet Greenwood is fine with it.

So what have we learned?

  • People who make things deserve to get paid by people who want those things.
  • People who take a risk and invest in people who make things deserve to get paid, too.
  • Artists are a category of people who make things.
  • Artists deserve to get paid when someone buys their work.
  • Artists deserve to get paid when someone uses their work to sell something else.
  • Martha Thomases is not an art critic.