Battle Over Film Rights Swells With the Internet


Advances in technology may partially resolve the long-standing feud between film artists and the studios over who owns--and can alter--the final cut of a released film, agreed leaders on both sides.

That, however, is nearly all they agree upon. The dispute will be highlighted again today and Friday at an Artists Rights Foundation symposium, to be held at the Directors Guild of America offices in West Hollywood. The 6-year-old foundation is a nonprofit coalition of directors, writers, cinematographers, actors and other film artists.

The dispute has taken on an added edge this year because of the proliferation of media on which a film may be shown and altered, most notably on the Internet. Also ratcheting up the dispute has been the explosive growth of the international market, which accounts for about 50% of all film revenues, with studio executives under increased pressure to edit films shown abroad to suit local sensibilities.


Foundation President Elliot Silverstein said the dispute “stems from a flaw in American law which equates ownership of a work with authorship. Clearly, this is not true. And until that issue is solved, no other problems can be solved.”


The problem, he said, “has only become worse because . . . opportunities for digital film alterations have become greater. And just as hackers can capture [online] information and change it to suit their own purposes, they will also be able to do with films.”

Such changes, resulting in several versions of the same film, “throw into question a film’s authenticity,” he said.

Michael Backes, co-chairman of the AFI’s digital media studies department, agrees that the Internet at once poses the greatest threat, and the greatest promise, for the film industry.

“The Internet’s ability to deliver quality imagery is still very limited,” causing films to lose more than 80% of their integrity, he said. “The question, then, is whether ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ [on the Internet] is still ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ At what point does the artist have the right to say, ‘That’s not my movie, but a postage stamp that moves?’ ”

However, Backes stressed, “the Internet also has a huge upside.” Nearly half the expense of making and distributing a video stems from production and delivery costs, which disappear with the Internet’s elimination of videotapes, boxes and store retail costs. As a result, documentaries and foreign films that cannot now be economically distributed might be profitably distributed online.


An artist who feels strongly about having final cut can pre-negotiate such a provision. “Marty Scorsese has a history of taking less money in return for final cut,” said a Hollywood producer who requested anonymity. “So has Steven Spielberg. They’ve achieved a high moral ground.”

Judge Alex Kozinski, who sits on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and is a scheduled symposium participant, says he believes that “the market protects artists just fine.”

Proposals to give artists final cut financially hurt the artists they are supposed to help, by depriving the artist from a financial stake in his own rights. “Even if he wants to take money for [them], he can’t,” he said.

Nor, he believes, is the preservation of artists’ rights in the interest of the consumer. “Markets change. Why not put in a new score with ‘Gone With the Wind’ to take advantage of Dolby stereo? It’s not the same experience as in 1939, but if the director at the time had Dolby, he might well have used it. Whereas if you prohibit this, you diminish the size of the audience,” he said.

The trick, Kozinski said, is to preserve the original film, allowing the audience to view either the original or the enhanced version.

Director Michael Apted, who directed the 1992 movie “Thunderheart,” does not buy these arguments. Set on a Native American reservation, “Thunderheart” centered on the ‘70s turmoil between Native Americans and the FBI. “I wanted to break down stereotypes of the Indians as presented by Hollywood,” he said.

It was on his track record as a documentary maker that Apted won Native Americans’ consent to film on their reservation as well as their participation in the film, he said.

Cut to a call he got a year-and-a-half ago, from the film’s production arm, TriStar. “They told me the film would be broadcast on Fox [Television] and needed editing. They took off 28 minutes from its 118 minutes running time. I was outraged. I spoke to the top guys at Fox and TriStar. They said there was nothing I could do about it; ‘Thunderheart’ had been sold as part of a package.”

Cut were precisely the scenes that Apted had promised the reservation’s residents would be in the film. After filing a suit against Sony, the parent corporation of TriStar, Apted finally won the right to remove his name from the edited version.

However, to prevent this from becoming an industry precedent, effectively removing a star’s name from the marquee, Sony is appealing the decision. That appeal is now before the 9th Circuit, said a DGA spokesman, although it is not before Judge Kozinski.

“I never had an argument with a studio before,” Apted said. “But there is a line that absolutely must not be crossed. And that line was crossed.”

English director Alan Parker, whose latest film, “Evita,” aroused calls for censorship in Argentina, concurred. “In nearly every other country, the rights to authorship [by the artists] are recognized,” he said. “The United States is backward in that regard. In Europe, directors are artists, pure and simple, and there’s a respect for that. Here, we’re coal miners going into the pits, bringing out the coals for the owners.”