How Copyright Law Gave Us STAR WARS

What if George Lucas had been able to make straight-up fan fiction?

In an alternate universe George Lucas never made Star Wars because he was able to get the rights to Flash Gordon. See, that was Lucas' original intention, and he even went to meet with King Features Syndicate, who held the rights, to talk with them about making a movie based on the classic comic strip and movie serial space adventurer. Lucas says that King Features wanted 80% of the profits, and that they wanted Fellini to direct. Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas' best bud at the time, thinks that they just didn't take the movie brat seriously. Whatever the case, George Lucas was unable to make a Flash Gordon film, and so he instead filtered what he loved about Flash Gordon through other influences, including Joseph Campbell and 2001 and came up with a brand new concept that forever changed our pop culture. Could his Flash Gordon have been as seismically important? Perhaps, but it's the synthesis of other influences that makes Star Wars special. 

This comes to mind because of the recent court ruling that places all of Arthur Conan Doyle's pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes stories into the public domain. For fan fiction types this is a technicality only; they've long been creating disturbing fiction based on sexualizing the relationship between Watson and Holmes. It's more interesting in terms of the ability to reprint that material without licensing it Actually I misunderstood the basics of the case. Ian in the comments explains:

The Sherlock Holmes stories published before 1923 were already in the public domain and could be reprinted without licensing. The issue was whether the character itself was in the public domain, and so whether people could use it in derivative works.

The court had to decide if you could separate the elements of the character established in earlier (public domain) stories from those established in later (copyrighted) stories. The other option was that Sherlock Holmes was a singular indivisible character developed over every story he appeared in and therefore not able to be used until every story entered the public domain.

The court ruled that the Sherlock Holmes character was in the public domain, as long as no elements of the character that were established after 1923 were included.

This brings to attention the continuing battle to loosen IP laws so that the public can get their hands on these characters sooner. 

I get it from a legal standpoint, but not from a creative one. I know the argument that Shakespeare was basically retooling old stories, and I understand that we take for granted the fact that the Greek gods belong to anyone to use as they please. But is the assertion being made that Shakespeare's genius came from appropriating prior stories? That with bizarrely strong (eternal, I guess) IP protections the Bard would have just been some guy, unable to come up with subject matter? That he only remixed what came before? That seems silly to me; these old stories and characters were the dressing for his genius, not the source of it. 

Playing with established characters can be interesting. Working in a licensed setting - writing the adventures of a long-running comic character, for instance - allows you to add to a growing canon of stories. It's fun in an Exquisite Corpse sense, but Exquisite Corpse games only work when the story is being properly handed off; they don't work when everybody is just shouting over each other with their personal take on the next chapter. And using existing characters makes for textured literary criticism; Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbe's Lost Girls gains tremendous frisson because it views its questions of sexuality through the prism of established characters. But the best work Moore ever did, Watchmen (with Dave Gibbons), came after he was unable to use established characters to tell his story. He had to take what he was interested in with the Charlton comic characters and transform it into something different. He synthesized. 

That is what we should be doing with art that inspires us. We shouldn't be recreating it, or extending it or rewriting it to suit our desires or sexual peculiarities. We should be internalizing it, reshaping it in our own image, extracting the things that speak to us and then merging them with other things that speak to us. All art is built on influences, but the best art is taking a step beyond the influence, not simply replicating it. At some point in their education every artist copies their idols, but that's the stuff that should stay locked away. What gets shared with the world should be the result of internalizing and transmogrifiying those influences into something new - not quite lead into gold, but perhaps gold into a different sort of gold.

What if George Lucas had just been able to make a Flash Gordon movie? Would the elements of Eastern spirituality or the expansive imagination of the first three Star Wars films have ever happened? If he was just adapting the creatures of the planet Mongo would he have ever invented the creatures and characters people cherish today? Perhaps the best way to honor that isn't to make a Star Wars fan film, repeating what's been already done, it's to use the things in Star Wars that speak to you as a stepping stone to your own original creations. Maybe instead of worrying about when you'll get a chance to use Mickey Mouse or Superman you should figure out why you like Mickey Mouse or Superman and then use that to create your own characters, stories and worlds. Take the inspiration and pass it along. Blaze new paths, not retread the same old ones. Make your own sandbox, bringing along a little bit of someone else's sand to get you started.