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How Balanced Copyright Gives Us As Many Freaky Alice in Wonderlands as We Can Handle

March 2, 2010 ,

Oftentimes, opponents of Public Knowledge suggest that our calls for a balanced copyright is really a call for everything to be free. First off, this is wrong. Balanced copyright is an attempt to find a way to promote creation without restricting innovation or creativity (or “balance” the rights of the creators of the past, creators of the future, and the public), not make everything free (for the 2 page handout version of PK’s take on balanced copyright, click here (PDF)).

Second, and what really annoys me, is the implication that there is no real value to works once they are in the public domain. While this is kind of an ongoing pet peeve of mine, two articles related to the new Alice in Wonderland movie from Sunday’s New York Times really drove it home.

Both of these articles, one specifically about Tim Burton’s reimagining of the Alice story, and the other about DVD reissues of previous versions to coincide with the Tim Burton version, talked about just how many different versions of Alice in Wonderland had been made over time. Of course, there are so many people making new versions of Alice in Wonderland (and making money off of their new versions of Alice in Wonderland) because the original is a public resource – it is in the public domain.

The Burton article’s lede captures this nicely: “Instead of Wonderland, it’s Underland. Instead of Alice as a bored but clever child, we get Alice as a 19-year-old rebel and warrior, dispatching the monstrous Jabberwocky with a magic sword.” Clearly, this new version is not going to be overly faithful to the original text. Alice’s “river of tears” are not in this version because the screenwriter “couldn’t have her break down like that.” In Burton’s ending, Alice apparently sails off to China to start selling opium and slaves.

The DVD reissue article collects other films interpreting Carroll’s original. There is the 1966 BBC version with Peter Sellers, the 2009 SyFy reconstruction, the 1933 Parmount version endorsed by the original inspiration for Alice (Alice Reginald Hargreaves, nee Liddell), and of course the 1951 Disney animated version.

Each of these versions are inspired by the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Each was made with commercial motives in mind, not some urge to set information free (and generally made a lot of money for their creators to boot). Each, at least according to the descriptions in the Times, is bizarre. However what is most striking is that each is bizarre in a way that was probably unanticipated by Alice’s original author.

Even though they are strikingly different in almost every imaginable way, we can understand them to be related through that original story. Beyond that, they are stronger works because we understand them in the context of a shared cultural touchstone. They aren’t all just freaky movies about some girl and a rabbit. They are Alice in Wonderland stories. That changes how we watch them, think about them, and talk about them.

One of the reasons that the creators of these many versions (who, again, didn’t do it for free – they made the movies to make money) felt free to be as strange as they wanted was because they did not need permission to create their version of Alice. They could take the original story, freak it up however they wanted, and create something new. Creators are better off because they had a way to link a new story to something that people understood (and probably made more money in the process). The public is better off because they can choose between a number of freaky Alice in Wonderlands, or even make their own. Even Alice is better off because she lives on as a cartoon, a little girl, a warrior princess, and whatever else people can dream up for her.