Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: What The Public Domain is All About

The internet, or at least the corner of it that I inhabit, has been moderately abuzz with talk of the upcoming release Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, which intersperses the original text of Austen's classic work with harrowing zombie battles in a single, theoretically cohesive narrative. In the words of the promo summary, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action."

I don't know if it will be a good book. It has a solid chance to be at the very least amusing, but that's not really important at this point. I don't care if it's great or crap. What's important is that this book has the potential to serve as a reminder of something that seems to have fallen from public view.

The public domain is an important part of copyright law. Though the specifics vary from country to country, the premise is the same: after a given period of time, intended to allow an author and their family to appropriately profit from their creative property, that property's copyright lapses. At this point the complete text of the work is free to be reprinted, modified, and/or redistributed by others.

You've seen the main results of this: countless editions of the "classics" (largely those novels which were written and published prior to the advent of the copyright) by dozens of publishers packing the literature shelves of all your local bookstores. At best each of these editions will include a academic essay or two expounding upon the literary merits, maybe an author biography (as is prevalent in the Penguin Classics series). At worst just a photograph of a vaguely related (and likewise public domain) piece of art slapped on the cover as another publisher tries to capitalize on a proven seller. And whether good or bad (and certainly there is plenty of good out there in some of these), all of these companies have completely and utterly missed the point.

The public domain provision in copyright law is built with the intent to encourage progress in the arts and sciences (a goal considered noble enough to be included in the U.S. Constitution) by enabling the production of derivative works. Whether this is a cross-media adaptation, such as an innovative film by a crew that could never afford the rights to an owned property, a fresh translation of an ancient text, or inserting zombie-combat into a novel of 19th century British manners, the principle is the same. Such a new creative act, built upon those previous, can be just as viable as a work of pure imagination.

It is my hope that this new work will serve as a wake-up call to other writers, filmmakers, musicians and most of all the publishers that employ these artists. There is a massive wealth of opportunity in the derivation of existing works that is wasted on endless repackaging and reprinting of the same old text. Get over the idea that new work and old work need to be two separate things. Let Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation show how something truly new and original can be grown from the fertile soil of another piece. And, of course, the hype that P&P&Z has gotten should serve as a sign of the money-making potential (yes, I know where the bottom line lies).

We'll see if this plays out like I hope it will. So far all anyone seems to have managed to come up with is a different kind of monster to stick into Pride & Prejudice. But there's hope.


silly punk said...

that may be the only way to get me to read Austen...

Lucas said...

I think I had the idea for "Pride and Predator" back in high school when I decided that romantic comedies would be tolerable if every so often the camera changed to a viewpoint of the couple from 15 feet off the ground and in infrared, with either the sound of a heartbeat, breathing, or computer beeps.

NineInchNachos said...


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