Picture this: The writer of a zulu tune written in 1939 dies in poverty 20 years later. His song goes on to become one of the most popular tunes in Africa, and is recognised the world over. Ownership of the copyright ends up in American hands, and finds its way into a film which becomes a worldwide hit. The film makes tens of millions of dollars, and is then turned into a successful stage musical – a few more million in the bank and counting. The song reportedly makes $15 million but the family of the writer get $15,000. As Rolf Harris would say, can you guess what it is yet?
Now, I’m no expert in copyright law, although apparently it should have reverted back to the family of the deceased 25 years after his death, so that would be 1987. Something somewhere seems to have been overlooked, but the family eventually sued and won an ‘undisclosed’ out-of-court settlement. Another case of the multinational/big corporate beating the small guy with a stick?
Ethics are a wonderful thing, and many people don’t argue against them particularly. Unless they get in the way of making a few quid, that is. Ask a hundred people on the street what they think and I bet most would side with the small guy, but they don’t have their finger in this particular financial pie. Ask a hundred shareholders – of Disney in this case, if you were wondering – and I suspect you’ll get slightly different results. The trouble is that exploitation of this kind is probably taking place all the time, but we never get to hear about it. I bet there are a lot of really pissed-off people out there…
But what happens when one of the stars of a film, or book, or song can’t speak for itself? I’m thinking wildlife – whales, dolphins, gorillas, lions and all manner of worldly creatures. There’s also a very compelling ethical/financial issue here. It’s ironic that most of the ‘wildlife stars’ in these productions happen to either sit on, or uncomfortably near, the ‘critically endangered’ or ‘critically threatened’ list. How much of the hundreds of millions (even billions?) of dollars made from films such as The Lion King, King Kong and Free Willy been donated to the conservation of these very species? I’d like to do a little more research on that one.
Musically speaking, Michael Jackson’s epic ‘Earth Song’ from 1996 – “What have we done to the world, Look what we’ve done” – takes us through almost everyone’s top 10 favourite animals (“What about elephants, What about crying whales” and so on) and drives home their destruction and death. Not knowing how much money was made globally by this massive hit, again it would be a very interesting exercise to find out how much was donated to causes trying to save those very elephants and whales. I’ll happily stand corrected, but again would be very surprised if it were much, if anything at all.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a law which made it compulsory to donate a certain percentage of income (and not just a token amount, either) to the preservation of any species which take a central role in your song, film, photograph or book? After all if lions, gorillas, whales, ants and so on didn’t exist then we wouldn’t be able to enjoy watching films about them, whether they’re turned into rampaging 30 foot monsters with attitude, changed into cartoon figures or kept in their natural form.
Unless something gives the only place future generations will be able to see these magnificent creatures will be in dusty film archives – or at best a zoo – and that would not only be a real shame but an ecological and environmental disaster.