Hazards of extended copyright

Big Bosoms and Square Jaws coverReading Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Russ Meyer, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, I was surprised to find that the last chunk of it was the most compelling part. For me, at least.

Unless you’re a film geek or have a passing interest in American exploitation cinema, you probably don’t know Russ Meyer.

Meyer was a filmmaker and entrepreneur. In the course of his twenty-plus year filmmaking career, he invented two new genres (the “nudie cutie” and the “roughie”) before becoming a genre unto himself. He stormed the gates of the major studios — at their invitation — then, chafing at the lack of control he was permitted, went back to self-producing and financing his own films, making himself even more rich in the process.

Since he self-produced most of his films, Meyer also held the rights to them, and he was canny in holding and renewing those rights, even to the ones that failed at the box office (like the now-immortal Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!).

When home video took off in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Meyer reaped the benefits, self-distributing his now-classic and in-demand works via mail order, keeping revenue flowing in.

While Meyer was, personally, far from being a saint — very far — he was not the inveterate bastard that the phrase “exploitation filmmaker” brings to mind. He was, in his own idiosyncratic way, a gentleman, a man of integrity and honor. If you had worked for him, and later found yourself fallen on hard times, you could not only count on him for help, he would even give help unasked if he found out you needed it. (This did not apply to those he felt had betrayed him, obviously. And his ideas on what counted as betrayal were part of his idiosyncrasy.)

That’s how Meyer was.

That is not how his estate is.

Russ Meyer’s final years were marred by the deterioration of Alzheimer’s disease. (Which was unfortunate, as losing his mind was one of his greatest fears — his sister had been in an institution all of her adult life [often calling him to complain of dark conspiracies against her].) He had no family or obvious heirs when he passed, and intellectual property worth millions.

Enter Janice Cowart, an accountant who was never part of Meyer’s circle of friends or acquaintances until she got hired to keep books for him in 1988.

“One of the reasons she got into this better and deeper and thicker than anybody is the new computer age,” said longtime RM secretary Paula Parker. “She has a brother who is a computer programmer.” Whereas everything had previously been done by hand, the Internet age left Meyer out in the cold—and completely dependent on his new hire. Web sites? E-mail? Janice could take care of all that. Everybody liked Cowart in the beginning, even Kitten Natividad. “When she first started, she was nice to everyone—‘Oh, is this Kitten? Hold on, I’ll get him for you. It’s Kitten, Russ!’ Then later on it was, ‘Well, I don’t know—he’s really busy right now.’ You could see her changing. She took over.”

This pattern plays out again and again and again in the history of intellectual property. A creator gets to a point of resting, and trusting those around him, and some transition or change leaves him vulnerable, open to trusting someone new, who can help with that transition. And that new person, more often than not, is a sociopath or someone tending in that direction, who uses the position of trust to gain more and more power, and ends up the sole owner of the IP after the creator passes on. Sometimes it’s not that blatant. Sometimes a board of trustees is created to manage the estate’s IP. The same thing happens, sooner or later — someone gains control, through charisma, politicking, and carefully planned betrayals, and that person is completely indifferent toward the creations, caring only for the control, the power, and usually the profits they generate.

And how well do they shepherd the IP they own and are meant to protect? Terribly, more often than not.

Cowart, at the time of the biography, controlled everything Meyer made (barring the two studio films), and did exactly nothing in terms of preservation, restoration, or bringing Meyer’s demented genius to new generations. She had a few cronies, threw work and money their way (doing dreadful “art” for DVD covers, e.g.), and badmouthed (with faux regret, to maintain appearances) anyone who dared question her handling of the estate she grabbed control of through the simple means of knowing computers, and jumping in when Meyer’s mind began to succumb to dementia.

When confronted by this repeated reality, IP warriors inevitably sniff (sometimes audibly) and proceed to blame the victim. That’s too bad in this particular case, they aver, but the creator should have done something about it. Estate planning, trust planning, incorporating, whatever their preferred method, they blame creators and hold sociopaths guilt-free. And they get righteous and high and mighty about it, too.

I’m sorry, but if you blame victims and defend sociopathic behavior, you are the problem.

This kind of case is why I think intellectual property rights should (outside of work-for-hire situations) be non-assignable. The right lives (and dies) with the creator, and while it can be licensed, it cannot be transferred.

In fact, if we went back to the original Constitutional terms, copyright would last for 28 years, regardless. If that were the case, then you might argue that some sort of trust, temporary, should be allowed to hold rights if a creator died before the term was up.

Except that then there will be non-creators with cashflow from things they did not create who will argue, using that cashflow going to politicians, that copyright should be extended again (and again and again and again), and that’s how we got to the neverending copyright mess we have today.

I should note that, in terms of film as an art form, Russ Meyer is an outlier. For most films, there is rarely one singular creator. Even under auteur theory (which I hold only applies to a very few directors), film is (say it with me) a collaborative medium.

However, Russ Meyer is not only an auteur, he is pretty inarguably the author of his films. The actors, generally, are props to his vision, more so than with any other director. He not only directed, he wrote, directed, photographed, and edited nearly all of his films.

In the case of most other films, you can make the case that there were many creators, all of whom should have some IP in the result. In Meyer’s case, it is easy to say that the films are entirely his, and difficult to argue the contrary.