Monday, July 24, 2006

Steely Dan: America's first men of the borrowed couch?

To what extent does an artist/writer/musician 'own' the characters they create once they've released their artwork/book/song into the public sphere?

70s studio band Steely Dan have written an open letter to actor Owen Wilson, via his brother Luke, essentially accusing the film he's starring in "You, Me and Dupree," of appropriating the character they created in their Grammy winning song "Cousin Dupree". They complain that they have not crediting them (or as seems more important in their letter, compensating them financially) in any way.

As Salon's Audiofile blog explains: "Both the song and film feature a moocher named Dupree living on a borrowed couch and getting up to no good, or as Becker and Fagen put it in their letter: "They, like, took our character, this real dog sleeping on the couch and all and put him in the middle of some hokey 'Down and Out in Beverly Hills' ripoff story and then, when it came time to change the character's name or whatever so people wouldn't know what a rip the whole thing was, THEY DIDN'T EVEN BOTHER TO THINK UP A NEW FUCKING NAME FOR THE GUY!"

It's a pretty funny letter but besides their, like, obviously ripping off the speech patterns of the youth of the nation and, like, not apologising for putting out crappy songs like "Rickey Don't Lose That Number" or other indulgent over-produced 70s numbers (watch the jaws drop when you play them Turn That Heartbeat Over Again) do they really believe that there was something terribly original about a a mooch on a borrowed couch? If their song had any resonance in the first place, it was because they captured something familiar, not really that they invented something new. The film in question certainly seems like a genre flick and that it pays open hommage to the name of the character in their song inserts that filmmaker's script into the artistic continuum of 70s couch moochers (and thankfully leaves out the whole kissing cousin part of the Steely Dan song story.) It's called clever writing.

But what Steely Dan actually seem worried about is money. They're making an intellectual property grab, an incresingly common occurence, and acting hard done by at the same time. However even under US copyright law, characters are only protected if they are significantly original and not stock characters-not sure that Dupree really qualifies.

Why they're targeting the actor and trying to shame him is another interesting development and can be seen as part of the ongoing attempt to change the public's mind about what constitutes ownership and fair use. (A PR campaign so they look like good guys instead of whining rich guys a la Metallica and Napster?) Indeed, do copyright holders even think of their work as going public anymore or has it become all about private market transactions?

Here's Ivan Hoffman, an American lawyer's take on copyright and trademark of characters.

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