Alienated by Hollywood

I’m still trying to settle into a rhythm of doing as little as possible, something I’m not quite used to. I’m getting better at it, though.

One of the things I’ve decided to do is “desk research” into a murky area. That dark and gloomy space where copyright meets “content” and chains the strangest bedfellows together.

I want to do this by researching an event I know very little about. When I was around ten years old, one of the more esoteric topics in “cocktail party” conversations in Calcutta was a particular Satyajit Ray Hollywood episode. Definitely not something a schoolboy would get deeply into, but it stuck somewhere in my head anyway.
Apparently he went to Hollywood in 1967 on a mission, to sell a particular project. He wanted to direct a film called The Alien, based on a script he’d written. By the time he got to Hollywood, he found that his script had already (a) done the rounds (b) been copyrighted by someone else and (c) already been acquired by the studio he was dealing with.

a saga of calamity
and hard luck
He found all this hard to believe. He left Hollywood, naturally, in very high dudgeon. That particular Calcuttan’s first experience of creativity meeting copyright was, shall we say, less than good.

Here’s an extract from his wikipedia entry, touching on this subject:

In 1967, Ray wrote a script for a movie to be entitled The Alien, based on his short story Bankubabur Bandhu (‘Banku Babu’s Friend’) which he wrote in 1962 for Sandesh, the Ray family magazine. The Alien had Columbia Pictures as producer for this planned US-India co-production, and Peter Sellers and Marlon Brando as the leading actors. However Ray was surprised to find that the script he had written had already been copyrighted and the fee appropriated. Marlon Brando later dropped out of the project and though an attempt was made to bring James Coburn in his place, Ray became disillusioned and returned to Kolkata.[27] [28] Columbia expressed interest in reviving the project several times in the 70s and 80s but nothing came of it. When E.T. was released in 1982, many saw striking similarities in the movie to Ray’s earlier script – Ray discussed the collapse of the project in a 1980 Sight & Sound feature, with further details revealed by Ray’s biographer Andrew Robinson (in The Inner Eye, 1989). Ray believed that Spielberg‘s movie would not have been possible without his script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies.

If he were alive today, his views on Hollywood and copyright may have been interesting to hear. Who knows, he may even have made a film about it. Opensource.

Notwithstanding his experiences of Hollywood, he may have had more positive views about the digital world we live in. The state of the Satyajit Ray film archives seems deplorable despite the best efforts of a bunch of people, a saga of calamity and happenstance and hard luck. Just stuff that I found while digging around for the Alien script story.

The World Is FlatSuch tales of person A claiming person B’s copyright, and being paid for it in good faith by person C, still continue. The most recent I can remember is that of the cover illustration for Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. The publishers did their bit, found the copyright holder and paid their dues. Wrong copyright holder, apparently. So the books were recalled and new covers issued.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere for all of us. When we finally figure out who gains from all this DRM guff. It’s not the creative guys. It’s not the consumers.

5 thoughts on “Alienated by Hollywood”

  1. You got it: “When we finally figure out who gains from all this DRM guff. It’s not the creative guys. It’s not the consumers.” Who are WE?

  2. Having just read EmergingChaos I was struck by the parallels. In there, the proposal is that “We need a law to make it so that if Larry lends money to Alice, he cannot try to collect it from Bob.” Here we have a case where if Ray creates content it should not be sold by someone else.

    As for DRM, of course there’s a short-term benefit for the vendors if they persuade people to buy into their DRM flavour.

    Now, there is another application area for the encryption technology, namely data protection for privacy and access management reasons. That would require an “open DRM” or “open Information Protection & Control” standard format, providing the protection to the key-holders, but not permitting that proprietary vendor lock-in.

    P.S. Best wishes for a rapid recovery.

  3. This is by no means an excuse or defense of what Hollywood did – but the current Indian film industry, as a whole, is certainly not known for proper crediting of other people’s scripts and ideas. I wonder what kinds of effects on current Bollywood “remakes” of Hollywood (and Tollywood and…and…and…) there might be if more had been made of this incident thirty years ago?

  4. Fair point, Beth. When I lived in India USA used to stand for Ullasnagar Sindhi Association, or so I was told :-)

    I guess in the greater scheme of things everything’s a remake, everything is imitation and mashup. A sort of Kurosawa and Seven Samurai question.

    Personally, I saw the Indian remakes as camp “over-the-top” farce more than piracy. I would watch the Western films, and then see Hindi films that took six or seven plots and put them through a formulaic blender, added song and dance to taste, took the kisses out and finally ensured the Good Guys Won.

    But I take your point.

Let me know what you think

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