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From Real to Reel: IP in Celluloid Part II


We meet again with the second and concluding part of the post dealing with the list of movies having a substantial reference to IP/innovation in some way or another (For those who are yet to read the first part, see here).

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The debates about extending the term of copyright can be rekindled by the story that had been depicted in the movie About a Boy, a 2002 movie starring Hugh Grant and Toni Collette, where the protagonist is a playboy whose life of leisure was made possible by the royalties from an annoying Christmas song composed by his father. Another Hugh Grant movie that contains references to moral right of co-authors and lyricists is Music and Lyrics, a 2007 film that stars Drew Barrymore too, where Hugh, a washed-up pop-star, takes the help of Drew to come up with the lyrics of a song for another singer that goes off to become a runaway hit.

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A stellar example of how the self-awareness and inherent wit of a movie screenplay can demarcate the differences between ownership and authorship would be the blockbuster movie Shakespeare in Love (1998), directed by Jon Madden and starring thespians such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush and Tom Wilkinson. The movie, while portraying the fictional Shakespeare selling the same play over and over again to rival companies of players, has a particularly relevant exchange pointed out to me by an enthusiast:

WILL SHAKESPEARE (shouts, to the players): Gentlemen! Thank you! You are welcome.

FENNYMAN [the money]: Who is that?

HENSLOWE [who owns the playhouse]: Nobody. The author.

WILL: We are about to embark on a great voyage.

HENSLOWE: It is customary to make a little speech on the first day. It does no harm and authors like it.

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Another powerful scene that has a bearing on IP, this time relating to copyright infringement, is from  the 1996 film The People v Larry Flynt, which has been described as follows by the person who brought the movie and the scene to our attention:

Falwell’s attorney: Flynt is countersuing.

Falwell: Suing? Me? Whatever for?

Attorney:  You copied Flynt’s ad and put it in all your flyers to your parishoners.  That’s copyright infringement.

Falwell: (dumbfounded) The depth of that man’s depravity astounds me!

The issue of faithfulness to the original creation during a movie adaptation and the quandaries faced by the screenwriter in the process, have been pretty closely reflected in the movie Adaptation in 2002, starring Nicholas Cage and Meryl Steep.

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A rather eccentric entry in the list is Barton Fink, a 1991 film directed by the Coen Brothers and starring John Tuturro. Among other things, it highlights the superficial distinctions between high culture and low culture in the backdrop of Hollywood, the slavery and conditions of labor in creative industries like movie-making (where the author being under contract can scarcely have a say in the manner in which his works are used, or whether they are used at all) and how intellectuals relate to “the common man”.

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The complications that time travel could play in affixing ownership of a creation have been portrayed in the garb of comedy in Back to the Future, where Marty McFly, during his stint in the past, plays “Johnny B. Goode” at a high school dance that in turn was shown to have inspired Chuck Berry to create the same song. This could have raised devilishly tricky complications about ownership, but fortunately, our copyright attorneys only need to deal with saner and more mundane possibilities.

The very extremes of the after effects of not giving credit where it is due can be seen in the 2012 movie Seven Psychopaths, starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken, where the protagonists hire the services of psychopaths to share their story from which they make the screenplay of their next movie, only to be threatened by the same psychopaths for not having accorded due credit to them.

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Incidentally, not every name in my list belongs to an America movie. In my search, I’ve been pointed towards an entertaining 1983 Czech movie titled Jára Cimrman Lying, Sleeping, directed by Ladislav Smoljak and starring the likes of Zdene Sverak, Valerie Kaplanova and Petr Cepek. The movie describes the various hilarious adventures of the fictional Dutch hero Jára Cimrman. However, there is a three-minute long segment of the movie that portrays the differences between the twin concepts of first-to-file and first-to-invent quite succinctly. Whenever the protagonist used to approach the Dutch patent office with various inventions that he had come up with, he would be told that some other applicant such as Bell and Edison had filed the same application just before he did.

From the Japanese film industry, we have a representative titled The Black Test Car, a 1962 fim directed by Yasuzô Masumura and starring Jiro Tamiya, Junko Kanô and Eiji Funakoshi. This film revolves around trade secret theft in the Japanese car industry, with two car manufacturers spying on each other to try to find out the specification and price of a new sports car each is about to launch.

There are, of course movies which have a central plot referring to IP some way or another, although the storyline does not deal with the issue squarely. Mention can be made in this context of movies like Duplicity, a 2009 film directed by Tony Gilroy and having a heavyweight cast consisting of Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, and Tom Wilkinson. The film essentially dealt with trade secret misappropriation and corporate espionage.

The movie The Age of Innocence, directed by none other than Martin Scorsese in 1993 and adopted from the book by the same name by Edith Wharton, features one of the characters, Mr. Letterblair, fighting a patent case in the Supreme Court in early 19th Century New York.

Then there’s The Hudsucker Proxy, a 1994 comedy directed by Joel Coen and starring Tim Robbins and Jennifer Jason Leigh, wherein a naïve young man, installed as the proxy president of a manufacturing company as part of a stock market scam, ends up inventing frisbees for children.

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In the Tom Cruise starrer 1996 hit Jerry Maguire, the sports agent protagonist, after having been fired from his firm, insists on getting back the client information (mostly phone numbers) relating to the clients whom he handles personally –this may bring to mind copyright issues over compilations involving sweat of the brow and similar related concepts. The movie, which explores other contractual legal issues too, also makes a passing reference to Jerry’s solitary client, Cuba Gooding, Jr., demanding ownership over a certain word “kwon”.

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The movie One, Two, Three in 1961, directed by Billy Wilder and starring James Cagney, had a tangential plot line dealing with the trade secret that was Coca-Cola’s recipe, in relation to a trade agreement leading to its distribution in the Russian market.

There are also films like White Banners (a 1938 picture starring Claude Rains) discussing the inventor losing out on a patent of his invention owing to it being stolen by another, as well as right of the financer of an invention.

Cursory involvement of patents can also be found in movies such as Gilda (1946), starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, which referred to formation of an aluminum cartel in South America based on some patents, as well as the 1934 film The Thin Man, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, wherein a patent-related conflict formed the backdrop of a murder.

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Even Disney has made its inevitable presence known in this list, through the entry of Meet the Robinsons, a 2007 animation movie telling the story of Lewis, a brilliant child prodigy and inventor who meets a mysterious stranger who whisks Lewis away in a time machine.

Old and new movies alike, dating from the days of St. Louis Blues (1958; starring Nat King Cole as W.C. Handy) to those of Cadillac Records (2008), have often dealt with the various issues surrounding the music and recording industries, including performers’ rights, a hotly debated topic in IP even till date.

Apart from movies, there have also been other similar formats of entertainment that have had more than a causal brush with the IP-innovation scenario. Mention can be made, for instance, of The Farnsworth Invention, a successful Broadway production penned by Aaron Sorkin that depicted the story of Philo Farnsworth, his invention of electronic television and his face-off against David Sarnoff, America’s first communications mogul.

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Then there are popular TV series like our beloved Simpsons, whose episodes have at times contained dealt with IP issues like a litigation over the Itchy and Scratchy Copyright or Homer seeking to patent a method for curing back problems etc. Another old TV Series from 1960s, The Dick Van Dyke Show, aired an episode that dealt with the copyright over a song written by Rob Petrie before he had become a screenplay writer for television shows. Then there’s of course the excellent documentary series carried by the History Channel back in 2001-2002, named The Patent Files, wherein the stories of breakthrough patents and the extraordinary inventors behind them were told.

Some of the IP practitioners and celluloid enthusiasts may also argue that certain objects referred prominently in movies, such as the letters of transit that are at the heart of the plot in Casablanca (1942), or the statuette in The Maltese Falcon (1941) have some features in common with IP, to the extent they are legal, intangible and obviously assignable objects and form the lynchpin of the plot action, which may arguably lead to creation of market value. The philosophical ramifications of a State that actively discourages creative art and the flourishing of such art in the form of poetry etc. despite such restriction, with no bar on usage, has also been arguably referred to, albeit tangentially, in masterpieces such as Doctor Zhivago (the conversation between Pasha and Zhivago about poetry, for instance).

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When it comes to Indian movies, sadly, my exposure is only limited to Hindi and Bengali movies, thereby leaving a vast wealth of other celluloid masterpieces unexplored. I’m hoping the readers can come up with suitable suggestions. Insofar as Hindi movies go, I’ve found only tangential references to patents in some, such as Tarzaan: the Wonder Car, a 2004 Abbas Mustan film that involved a scientist/engineer coming up with a new model of car and being killed over the patent squabble over the same. In another movie, Laaga Chunari Mein Daag in 2007, Abhishek Bachhan had played the role of a patent attorney and had to hear this about patents from Rani Mukerji, “It is a tool used by the West to exploit India and other poor nations!” (we had covered this tid-bit earlier here). In the movie 3 Idiots, Amir Khan’s character, Phunsukh Wangdu, was apparently “a world class scientist, having hundreds of patents in his name.” This movie, however, was the first of its kind to have come up with an outstanding concept of publicizing certain inventions from our very own backyard. Instances of such inventors would be Remya Jose, a student from Kerala, who created the exercise-bicycle/washing-machine, Mohammad Idris, a barber from Meerut district in Uttar Pradesh, who invented a bicycle-powered horse clipper and Jahangir Painter, a painter from Maharashtra, who made the scooter-powered flour mill. Even in the movie itself, Amir had come up with some ‘inventions’ such as using a vacuum cleaner to create a suction cup facilitating child delivery, an inverter using car battery to recharge itself and similar.

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In movies like Akele Hum Akele Tum, another Amir Khan starrer, Amir Khan’s character was shown to have transferred his copyright over his songs to other singer/lyricist/musicians for monetary considerations. Similar passing references, I have no doubt, can be obtained from several other movies. However, I’m yet to come up with any Indian movie having IP as central to its plot. There have, however, been a few movies like the runaway hit Oh My God! that have had dialogues with a passing, albeit casual reference to such matters, such as whether the persons-in-charge of temples have obtained a copyright over God and so on and so forth.

Okay, so this brings to a close the current version of the list as it stands now. I can’t simply sign off in good conscience without acknowledging the roles played by some wonderful IP and movie enthusiasts in coming up with the suggestions of all these entries in course of their discussion vide the <[email protected]> mail-group. Some of them I know personally, while some I’ve merely the fortune of having heard of. They include eminent IP professors and counsels of the likes of Dave Levine, Rochelle Dreyfuss, Shubha Ghosh (a treasure trove of information relating to IP in reel), Yvette Joy Liebesman, Rob Merges, Michael Madison, Guy A. Rub, Walter Effross and our very own Swaraj, of course, along with many others.

Keep this post alive with your comments, readers and all the new entries in this list that you can think of. I’m sure I’ll get to know of several new movies from you that would add to my knowledge and also pleasure (in that I’ll surely try to have a watch of them too). There’s no doubt that given the deeply influential role played by films in shaping popular mindset and culture, a favourably accurate portrayal of IP and the surrounding issues in celluloid can do a lot to facilitate the spread of global awareness, while keeping the entertainment quotient intact. And that, after all, is what Spicy IP is all about!

Shouvik Kumar Guha

Shouvik Kumar Guha

Shouvik is at present employed as a Research Associate and a Teaching Assistant at The W.B. National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. He has obtained his B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) degree from NUJS itself and is also currently pursuing his LL.M. degree from the same university. From his very year at law school, he had been attracted towards the discipline of Intellectual Property and that interest has been kindled further in course of time. The interface between IP and other disciplines such as Economics, Anti-trust Law, Human Rights, World Trade Law and the technological developments relating thereto, has especially caught his attention since then. He’s authored several papers on issues relating to IP and other legal disciplines for journals, books, magazines and conferences in national as well as international levels. He is also currently co-heading an organization called Lexbiosis, which is an endeavor meant to facilitate the collaboration between the legal industry and academia.

6 comments.

  1. Pingback: From Real to Reel: IP in Celluloid Part I | Spicy IP

    1. Shouvik Kumar GuhaShouvik Kumar Guha Post author

      @Pradeep: Good spot! I didn’t remember that, but then, I’d given that movie only a very cursory watch.

      Reply
  2. AvatarPankaj Thape

    Shouvik,

    I would like to add a Marathi Movie ‘De Dhakka’ where the guy sells his father’s farm, even his household things to make a Device which saves Petrol…and he also gets a visitor from a Good Automobile company to see his product..but the company guy says its bad and later sells the same device to somebody else…..all the hard work (‘Mehnat” would be better word here 🙂 seems to go in vain but at last he is saved because his friend has already PATENTED that device in his name……. Happy Endings 🙂

    Reply

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