Tuesday, May 11, 2004

California sentences a man for doing what we in NYC call art (bootlegging)

California is serious about stopping people who go into theaters and video tape new movies for the purposes of pirating them. They have recently enacted a statute which makes it a criminal act. Article here:

In the first sentencing under California's new anti-camcording law, a 34-year-old Los Angeles-area man has been sent to jail for 42 days, the Motion Picture Assn. of America said Friday.

The guy was caught video taping "The Alamo." He got nailed when a projectionist with night-vision goggles saw the light from his camcorder. They've got James Bond style equipment to find these guys.

The artist recently featured in the New York Times who videotapes movies in much the same manner, and then shows them in art galleries has made the wise decision to change up his schtick.

A 34-year-old video artist living in Baltimore, Mr. Routson has a very particular method of art-making, which will soon be illegal in Maryland, as it already is in the District of Columbia and five other states, including New York and California. Like the appropriation artists of the early 1980's, who rephotographed existing photographs as a way of commenting on society, Mr. Routson makes movies of other people's movies.

Since 1999 he has been going to Baltimore-area movie theaters, often on a feature film's opening day, and recording what happens on and around the screen with a small, hand-held camcorder. He shows the grainy, oddly distorted results, which he calls recordings, as DVD installations in art galleries.

This case appears to be blatant copyright infringement, but actually raises really difficult questions of fair use (an exam question?). The artist doesn't film the work in order that it be sold on DVDs in Chinatown, he even shakes the camera and records the sounds the audience is making (crunching popcorn, slurping sodas, etc) - so arguably this work is transformative. Also, he doesn't sell the works, he only shows them in a gallery, therefore there is really no effect on the market for the original work (as we all know, in an art gallery you stand there in front of the work for about 10 seconds before thinking, "ok, I get it,' and walk away, no one would actually sit there and watch the whole thing).

I think if this artist was sued there is a fair chance that - if the artist could afford to litigate, and if he got a very good attorney, and if he got a sympathetic judge, and the stars alinged in a certain way - he might get away with this. Who knows? The fact is that right now the industry is pounding away on IP crimes so hard that people's attitudes are changing about piracy and courts and the legislatures are getting very tough. This artist would probably go down in flames in the real world.

Mr. Routson, who described himself in a telephone interview as increasingly nervous on his visits to theaters, said he had heard rumors that the management of one chain was offering $100 to any employee who apprehended someone with a camcorder.

Uh-oh. The article goes on to make a very serious point. Our surroundings are completely saturated with trademarks and copyrights - pop culture. It would be nearly impossible to run a video recorder anywhere in this country for more than 30 seconds without recording some intellectual property. We need artists to tear these images apart for us every now and then to remind us that there is more to life, and to expose the hidden nature of some of pop culture's forms.

Our surroundings are so thoroughly saturated with images and logos, both still and moving, that forbidding artists to use them in their work is like barring 19th-century landscape painters from depicting trees on their canvases. Pop culture is our landscape. It is at times wonderful. Most of us would not want to live without it. But it is also insidious and aggressive. The stuff is all around us, and society benefits from multiple means of staving it off. We are entitled to have artists, as well as political cartoonists, composers and writers, portray, parody and dissect it.

It's a valid point - the more harsh copyright law becomes, the less oppurtunity artists have to comment on it, and the less everyone else is exposed to competing memes and ideas.


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