On the Commodification of the Ecstasy of the By-Products of Action

March 13, 2007

(No, this is not another Splasher post.)

 If you haven’t read Jonathan Lethem’s amazing plagiarism, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” over at Harper’s, go do so. The idea that everything is a retelling is, in itself, not a new idea, but I don’t often think of works of art and literature as being better when they play off each other. Of course it’s true, and I realized that as soon as I really thought about it, but it’s not a concept that gets much play in today’s society, where Disney continues to convince us that it’s for the public good that they own Mickey until 2019.

Now Lethem has announced on his web site that he will give away, in two months’ time, a free option on the film rights to his novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, which is released today. The New York Times broke the story in their Arts, Briefly section and reported that Lethem said he’s “become fitful about some of the typical ways art is commodified.” There are two caveats to any aspiring filmmakers:

  1. I’d like the filmmaker to pay (something) for the purchase of the rights if they actually make a film: two percent of the budget, paid when the completed film gets a distribution deal. (I’ll wait until distribution to get paid so a filmmaker without many funds can work without having to spend their own money paying me).
  2. The filmmaker and I will make an agreement to release all ancillary rights to the film (and its source material, the novel), five years after the film’s debut. In other words, after a waiting period during which those rights would still be restricted, anyone who cared to could make any number of other kinds of artwork based on the novel’s story and characters, or the film’s: a play, a television series, a comic book, a theme park ride, an opera – or even a sequel film or novel featuring the same characters. For that matter, they can remake the film with another script and new actors. In my agreement with the filmmaker, those ancillary rights will be launched into the public domain.

I’m so amazed by this that I’m almost speechless. Way to walk the walk, Mr. Lethem. This is a man who makes his living from selling his intellectual property. He isn’t giving away something expendable. This is his life. This puts food on the table and pays the rent and he is giving it away for free. Yes, he may make some money off the film later, but he may not.

Also on Lethem’s web site is “The Promiscuous Materials Project,” similar in concept but for some of his short stories, and some song lyrics. Again, these stories are not expendable, early attempts. One story, “The Spray,” has been “the most requested story [Lethem has] published.” Interestingly, Lethem says the project was partially inspired by the idea that he could, using a Creative Commons-type license, allow more than one filmmaker to adapt the story. Indeed, despite the project being only a few months old, two filmmakers are working on “The Spray,” two other short stories are being turned into films and stage plays, and ten musicians have taken advantage of “The Promiscuous Songs,” the recordings of which are available on line.

I will be following this as the months go on to see how many directors and movie studios take Lethem up on his offer for You Don’t Love Me Yet. I’d also be interested to see if this also results in the book selling more copies. People have to read it to see if they want to film it.

I just love the idea of sharing and sampling sponsored by the creators. It’s a win-win situation: good for the original artists and good for everyone else.

 Now if only Disney would figure that out.

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