I get very upset about US copyright law. It is so labyrinthine that a person can do all he can to be honest and forthright, but still step on legal toes. It’s even worse that people claim to own rights they don’t own, and other people deny rights to films that they actually do own.
The whole thing reminds me of the Tootsie Frootsie routine from A Day at the Races (1937), in which Chico cons Groucho out of a wad of cash. In case you haven’t seen it, you can see it here. Inspiration struck me, and this skit was born.
I’m in favor of copyrights, and paying fees when necessary. I do want to remind you that the constitutional founders wanted limited terms, and Congress has extended the term of copyrights at least three times.
As silly as this seems, all of the law in here, to the best of my knowledge, is exactly correct. There are a lot of lawyers out there who are every bit as unethical as Chico.
Films are dying because of this foolishness.
Groucho: Hey, Ravelli, I found a couple of old movies. I think one of them is yours. How much do you want me to pay you to show it?
Chico: Oh, no. That’sa mine. I sue you.
Groucho: I found it in the trash!
Chico: Hey, thatsa right. I throw it away.
Groucho: So you want to sue me for showing something you threw away?
Chico: You guess it. I sue you.
Groucho: Well, I could buy it from you. How much?
Chico: I no sell it.
Groucho: How about if I give it back to you, and then we show it?
Chico: OH, NO! I no want it.
Groucho: Maybe I could just pay you to show it once.
Chico: I no want you to show it. I sue you.
Groucho: You realize it would cost more to sue me than it would just to take my money.
Chico: OH, NO! I sue. Trusta me, I sue.
(Harpo comes out, dressed in judicial robes, and passes out pieces of paper saying CEASE AND DESIST.)
Groucho: You know, just retaining that shyster lawyer there costs more than this film is worth.
Chico: You’re right, but I sue justa the same.
Chico: Thatsa whadda we call precedents. If-a I sue you, then I’ve make a precedent, and then it make-a it easier to sue the next guy and-a win.
Groucho: So you’re suing me for wanting to show something that you threw out, you don’t want, and it’s not worth the money that you’re spending to sue me. I can’t buy it from you and you don’t want it back.
Chico: I do this just-a because I can.
Groucho: It doesn’t matter. I found another movie too, and you don’t own that. I’ll just show that one instead.
Chico: You can’t do that! It’s a copyright!
Groucho: How do I find out who owns it, then?
Chico: Well… justa by accident, Pinky and I, we own a law firm.
Groucho: Why I am not surprised?
(Harpo comes out again with cards saying “Ravelli and Pinky, Attorneys at Law.”)
Groucho: OK, I’ll bite. How much does it take to look up the copyright for this film?
Chico: I can’t tell you.
(Harpo whistles and shakes head.)
Groucho: I thought you were a lawyer.
Chico: Thats’a why I can’t tell you.
Groucho: What would it take so that you could tell me?
Chico: Well, I need a retainer. Money.
Groucho: I knew it. How much?
(Harpo holds up five fingers and whistles.)
Groucho: Five dollars? Well, that’s reasonable….
Chico: No, he’sa not got enof fingers. Fifty dollars.
Groucho: All right. You know, Custer wasn’t even scalped like this. (He hands him money.)
Chico: Atsa fine. Now, if the film was-a registered with the Library of Congress, then it’s a copyright. But that’s OK, the copyright, she expire after 28 years.
Groucho: Great! This movie is more than 28 years old, so I’m in the clear!
Chico: Not-a so fast. Congress, she pass-em a law that lets the owner renew it for another 28 years. But sometimes they renew, and sometimes-a, they no renew.
Groucho: Dandy. I suppose there’s some sort of published master list of renewals somewhere?
Chico: Ooooooh, no. You gotta find em!
Groucho: And where might I do that?
Chico: Well, just-a by accident…
(Harpo holds up a card saying, “Pinky’s Copyright Research.”)
Groucho: Then I don’t need your law firm anymore!
Chico: Sure ya do! I tell-a him what to look up, he goes to the Library of Congress to look it up, and then I certify it. That’s a called “due diligence.”
Groucho: How much will that be?
Chico: At’s a thousand dollars!
Groucho: A thousand dollars? Why?
Chico: Well, ya gotta fly him out to Washington, put him up in a hotel for a day, and then fly him back. Atsa thousand dollars.
Groucho: Why can’t I just send him out by car or train?
Chico: Then ya gotta feed him. You’d lose on the deal.
(Harpo opens mouth ravenously. Groucho cowers.)
Groucho: I can hire a local attorney to do it, and then save all that money.
Chico: You think you can find an attorney more honest than me?
Groucho: I’d hasten to think so.
Chico: In Washington?
(Groucho rubs neck and thinks.)
Groucho: I never thought it would happen, but you made a persuasive argument. Are you proud of yourself?
Chico: I’m proud of this wad of cash I got from you.
Groucho: Hypothetically speaking… you do know what hypothetical means, don’t you?
Chico: Sure. That’s the long part of a triangle.
Groucho: No, you’re thinking of a needle the doctor uses to immunize you.
Chico: Hey, the judge gave me immunize to testify against Pinky!
Groucho: Well, I can see I’m not going to get anywhere this way. Let’s say this: imagine that I paid you the money, and imagine that Pinky went to do the research. Imagine that there’s a renewal. Then can I run the film?
Chico: Well, you gotta pay the guy who owns the film.
Groucho: Won’t that be stated in the renewal?
Chico: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes a guy renew-a film that he no own, and that’s a void renewal. Sometimes-a he sell it to someone-else, and that might not be recorded in the papers at the Library of Congress.
Groucho: Then how do I find out who owns it?
(Harpo holds up a card, “Pinky’s Copyright Detective and Genealogy Service.”)
Groucho: And how do I find out if the renewal is void?
Chico: You need a lawyer for that.
(Chico smiles and offers card again.)
Groucho: All right then, I can just wait until the second term of copyright expires.
Chico: Oh, no, you can’t do that.
Groucho: I’m certain of that. But tell me why anyway.
Chico: Well, Congress, she’sa pass another extension. You see, if you register once…
Groucho: For 28 years…
Chico: Yes, and if they renew…
Groucho: For another 28 years…
Chico: Yes, well, Congress, she’s a make the renewal period 47 years. Then shesa change her mind again. Now it’s 67 years.
Groucho: That makes the total copyright period 95 years.
Chico: That’s it! You guess it!
Groucho: There’s no possible way I could make enough money from showing this film to offset the costs of finding out who owns it.
Chico: That’s what I discovered.
Groucho: I wanted to show it for preservation purposes. For an old time movie.
Chico: Oh, that’s a no good.
Groucho: It’s a lot less work just to throw it away.,
Chico: Now you understand why I threw mine away.
(Groucho tosses print away.)
Chico: That’s what you call film preservation.
Just in case:
Entire contents of this post Copyright © 2011 Eric Grayson.
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