The Lego Movie was a surprise monster hit to everyone, including the staff here at The NYRD, and as life long Master Builders ourselves we were thrilled with the movie we got. It had all the humor, action, and anti-copyright arguments Internet writers such as ourselves could hope for. “Wait,” you might be asking, “what was that last one?” It’s true the Lego Movie -intentionally or unintentionally- brought a pretty strong argument for why copyright laws in the United States should be lessened, and it is all cleverly hidden inside a movie that showcases more copyrighted materials than a Walt Disney investors’ meeting.
Following the Instructions
Believe it or not copyright laws in the United States date back to the Constitution. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 states, that the United States Congress has the power To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries. Odd capitalization aside, the Constitution helps protect the intellectual property of artists and inventors because artistry and innovation help bolster a free a vibrant society. The clause does not go into the specifics of how, as that was later established through several Supreme Court cases and copyright laws. Originally works by authors and artists were copyrighted for 28 years after their publication, before being deemed public domain.
Because -as crazy as it sounds- part of the original idea of copyrights is that they are supposed to expire, and that is why we are now free to remake things like Macbeth, Hamlet, and A Christmas Carol -in every possible way, every December. It is why Disney can make movies about the Little Mermaid or Snow White or Cinderella and not have to pay a dime for using those characters. Thus, it is the biggest irony that Disney is one of the largest proponents of extending copyrights on their licensed products, but they are not alone. Mark Twain, for instance, was a big believer in longer copyrights and so over the years that original 28 years became extended more and more. In 1821 it was extended to 42 years. In 1909 it was extended to 56 years. In 1976 it was extended to the lifetime of the author plus 50 years. In 1998 it was extended again to the lifetime of the author plus 70 years, a decision which was heavily pushed by none other than the Disney corporation.
So what does this all have to do The Lego Movie? A movie in which Will Ferrell plays an evil Lord Business that is highly invested in keeping all the Lego Lands separate and tidy according to their original building instruction books? It is only Emmett and his ragtag group of Master Builders who dare buck the system and use pieces from different worlds and properties to build new and original creations, despite the efforts of Lord Business and his micro-managers. The Lego Movie could have easily named their villain anything: Lord Absent-Father-Figure, Señor Manuel de Instrucciones, or even Darth Meticulous -actually that is a good name, I think we’re going to copyright that one… No, instead they named him Lord Business.
Lego Wild West©
In the movie Emmett addresses the Council of Master Builders in Cloud Cuckoo, and with a name like that you know it must be some crazy cloud. It is a place where builders go, free of the influence of Lord Business to mix and match and create using existing Lego sets and properties. No one in Cloud Cuckoo cares if you have Gandalf and Dumbledore arguing or if you find Batman hitting on Princess Leia -well Han Solo might care. Essentially, this crazy cloud place exists outside the rules of Lord Business and his walled off realms of Legoland. You know what other type of cloud based crazy space exists like that and often defies the rules of corporate copyrights? The Internet.
Though The NYRD does its very best to stay within all legal limits of copyright and fair use practices, we know that websites like ours, which regularly use copyrighted material to promote -and intelligently discuss- issues and stories would face greater scrutiny in the world of print media or television, because those are the realms which Lord Business controls. The Internet is a place where all the Lego sets are free to be taken apart and rebuilt in new and crazy ways, but not if corporations have a greater say in things.
Bad Cop is Lord Business’ main henchmen, which is sort of funny when you think about it. In the world of Lego the great corporate tyrant could have picked anyone, a ninja, a pirate, a spaceman, but we are presented with a bad -and sometimes conflicted- representation of the law. In fact it is Bad Cop who leads the attack on Cloud Cuckoo, which imprisons the Master Builders and limits the creativity and free expression that was taking place there, and we came very close to seeing such a thing happen back in 2012 with bills such as SOPA and PIPA. Those two Congressional bills aimed to put much greater legal limits on the use of copyrighted materials on the Internet. It is the most literal example you can have of the law coming in to do the bidding of big business. Thankfully, both SOPA and PIPA were struck down, but with no thanks to large corporations such as the Disney Company.
We here at The NYRD are not condoning piracy. The literal stealing of movies and the verbatim reproduction of other people’s intellectual properties is wrong and rightly illegal, whether it be music, software, literature, movies, or television. However, what we are talking about is not piracy but creativity. The government already recognizes the need for creators to have rights to play around in the worlds and franchises of already established fictions. It is why we have Fair Use and Parody laws already on the books, though often the meaning of what constitutes “fair use” is still debated. Without the freedom to use and exploit established material we would be deprived of great works, especially in the realm of comedy. Without these laws Mel Brooks would not have a movie career and that would be a tragic loss for the entire world.
It is great to have established franchises and properties. We love them, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and all the rest. We love hearing stories that take place in their universes, but when the rest of us are free to borrow and reexamine our favorite fictions and characters in new and interesting ways -both disturbing and wholesome- society as a whole benefits. All of sudden, something new and wonderful could be created, like a double-decker sofa. Because, The Lego Movie also makes the argument that when you are stuck in a world of strict copyright laws the best any of us can really look forward to is bland intellectual properties like the show, “Where are my Pants?” Open copyright laws do not cut into the fun of the original artists’ work, if anything they enhance it. They also do not cut into a companies’ profits either.
When SOPA and PIPA were being argued in Congress by Good Cop and Bad Cop, it was said that copyright infringement and online piracy were costing the United States anywhere between 58 and 250 billion dollars a year. As Freakonomics points out, those numbers are both unrealistic and possibly arrived through faulty methodology. Even Disney has recently learned that lessening their fiendishly white-gloved grip on their properties has benefits. One of the contributing factors to Frozen‘s massive commercial success -and the reason you can’t get Let it Go out of your damn head- is because Disney chose not enforce copyright laws on the millions of YouTube parodies, homages, and musical covers that cropped up around the time of the movie’s theatrical and subsequent DVD releases. The House of Mouse finally came to understand that a chorus of fathers signing like a Disney princess, or a tutorial video on how to do Elsa’s makeup do not infringe upon the profits of their movie, and in fact that the exact opposite is true.
In the end, maybe Lego was the perfect vehicle to breach the topic of copyrights. The toy has always been about imagination and innovation, and those are both important aspect of copyright laws. We certainly want creators and artists to have the security of knowing that their work will be preserved and their livelihoods maintained. We here at The NYRD are all writers and artists and that is important to us too. There is a reason it was included in the US Constitution, but rampant enforcement and Lord Business have turned copyright laws not into tools of artistic protection but blunt objects of corporate greed. After all, who do strict copyright laws really benefit? The public -who without them could look forward to new and interesting takes and remakes of existing properties- or the companies that hold the copyrights and can continue exploiting them for more money?
So, you can look at a movie like The Lego Movie as the classic struggle of whether to build with or without the instruction manual, or you can look at it as a deeper subtext in relation to copyright laws. It may also be no coincidence that the movie’s final plot and script seemed to coalesce in 2012 at the height of the SOPA and PIPA debates. Either way, we have to hand it to a movie which is basically just a feature length commercial. It managed to make an incredible and heartfelt argument for the power of creative freedom all while using Batman and other licensed characters to do it. Everything is awesome.