Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

Copyright, Creativity & Aesthetics, by way of "Rent"

Does copyright encourage creativity? Or discourage it?

I'm not sure how many people saw this article from the other day, which talks about a director's change to the ending of Rent:

The final scene was missing roughly five lines of dialogue. For those unfamiliar with the musical adapted from Puccini's La Bohème, the character of Mimi dies and returns to life in the final moments of the script.

Director and faculty member Diane Smith-Sadak told that she removed the final lines where Mimi describes her near-death experience, creating a "more ambiguous" ending about Mimi's fate, in order to point toward the savage realities of people suffering from AIDS and addiction in the early 1990s (a time when many of the antiviral drugs that save lives today, were yet unavailable).

via Yung6 at Wikimedia CommonsLet me start by saying I would love to see this production. If you know the story of opera Rent was based on, La Bohème, you know that Jonathan Larson changed the ending of the opera; Mimi does not live in the opera. (Larson wanted to have a more uplifting ending to the show.) This "new" ending is intriguing, and I wonder what different emotions and reactions it would bring to the audience.

But, more to the point, I want to ask what this means for copyright and creativity, and creative control. (Yes, it's *another* copyright blog post from a musician. 2nd in popularity of blog posts, behind the death of classical music.)

Things like this happen frequently in community productions of musicals, regardless of the language in the contracts and licensing agreements. I've played numerous shows with cuts to entire songs, dialogue, and - in one particularly horrible instance - a song that had numerous cuts (to "make it more like the CD") that involved too many page turns and arrows to keep track of where to read. What make this case different is that the cuts quickly turned into "Internet wildfire" and caught the attention of MTI, who directed the university to reinstate the missing lines.

That this happens frequently doesn't necessarily make it right. You can't claim mob mentality as a protection against a law.

But what I find curious about this incident is that this happens frequently in theatre works that are no longer covered by copyright. Think about the Shakespeare plays you've seen: how many of them were set in Elizabethan England? How many were set in a different time or place (Fascist Spain seems to be an overly common setting)?

Or operas. Directors frequently change the setting of the original opera (as Alex Ross mentions in Listen to This). Language is either modernized or translated from the original. Music is added or cut based on the latest scholarship.

This comes back to the question posed above: in this case, did copyright protect Larson's original vision of Rent? Did it discourage creativity by stifling part of the director's vision for her production? If a director can modify Shakespeare, why can't one modify Larson?

Adding another layer to this thought is that the music in Rent isn't 100% Larson. His untimely death led original music director Tim Weil to rearrange some of the music and orchestrations.

I also think this reflects how we view certain works. Some things are set in stone, not to be adjusted. Musical theatre, though going through a constant revision process in early try-outs and previews, is thought to be "set" when it's licensed for groups to perform across the country. Beethoven's music should be played as seen on the page (preferably from an ürtext edition). But a jazz song is meant to be improvised around, to use the composer's ideas as a starting point in creativity. It's almost expected that a director will modify elements of a Shakespeare play.

Is there a way to reconcile copyright, creativity, and - unmentioned until now - aesthetics? Aesthetic value is basically what this all comes down to. How we view music - is it an activity, an experience, a "work" similar to plastic arts? - dictates how we view copyright.

More than the "is art a commodity?" question, I think aesthetics dictate our opinions on copyright - at least, our gut instincts on the topic.

I don't claim to have a solution to the myriad of copyright issues in today's music world. Sometimes I think copyright laws are too draconian; sometimes I think they're fair. I'm sure most people think that way, too.

But think for a moment about what you think about music and aesthetics. Does it - more or less - align with your ideas on copyright? I'm interested in hearing what you think!

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