Blame Congress for Disney’s New Star Wars Film

Without the government's intervention, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker would be in the public domain—free to serve a new generation of storytellers.

Here are the first two thoughts I had Tuesday, when Disney announced it would buy LucasFilm and make a new Star Wars movie for 2015:

  1. I’m probably going to take my young son to see that movie, the way my parents took me to see the first one waaaaaaay back in the 1970s.
  2. I’ll probably hate myself for that, because inevitably the movie will not be good. It’s silly that we—I—care so much. And it’s silly that we can’t tear ourselves away. But there you have it.
  3. And, OK, there was this third thought.

Fine, fine, fine: We’ve all heard griping from Gen-X fanboys about how the late-1990s-era of Star Wars prequels didn’t measure up to the original trilogy that ran from 1977 to 1983. The backlash has been the subject of documentaries, dissections, and even an amazing critical rethinking of its own. News that one of our most sacred childhood worlds will be put through the Disney blender, though, sent men of a certain age into a chest-beating, shirt-tearing frenzy on Twitter, where the topic nearly blew Hurricane Sandy off the trending topics list.

Instead of getting angry at Disney, or George Lucas—again—I’m going to take a bit of inspiration from my friend Timothy B. Lee, a tech policy writer here in Philadelphia. I’m blaming Congress for the bloated, sprawling, unimaginative mess that Star Wars has become and seems likely to remain under new stewardship.

Yes, Congress.

“In a sane world,” Lee wrote on Tuesday afternoon, “all three original Star Wars films would have fallen into the public domain by now.”

He’s right! When the United States was founded, the length of a copyright term was 14 years—a term that could be extended to twice that length, if the author asked. After that, the author would stop getting royalties, and in turn other authors and storytellers could take that story and characters and remake it entirely into something new and wonderful.

So what happened? Well, actually, Disney happened.

In 1976—right before the first Star Wars movie came out—Congress lengthened the copyright term to the length of an author’s life, plus 50 years. And in 1998, under pressure from a lot of high-paid Walt Disney lobbyists who didn’t want to see Mickey Mouse enter the public domain, Congress extended copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years—or, for works of “corporate authorship,” 120 years after their creation.

Until now, that’s meant that nobody but George Lucas could take Han Solo and Luke Skywalker and tell a story using those characters. Going forward, Disney will control those rights for, oh, another century or so. And probably forever.

Why does this matter? Well, because we live in a remix culture—hell, culture has always been a remix culture: We take the stories we’ve heard and the song we’ve sung, add a bit of ourselves to them, make something new and pass them down. Disney’s first Golden Age of films involved stories (Snow White, Cinderella, etc.) that had been passed down as fairy tales for hundreds of years. In turn, the company has ensured that nobody can similarly profit—or similarly benefit the culture—with a daring act of recomposition.

Which means, in turn, that we don’t get new, lean versions of Star Wars made by a daring young filmmakers who—like George Lucas 40 years ago—have a story they desperately need to tell. (And, heck, Lucas’s first film was inspired by World War II aviator movies and samurai flicks.)  Instead, we get ever-more-bloated CGI extravaganzas that, too often, miss the human element that helped make the first movies so amazing.

Maybe Disney will surprise us. Maybe we in the first generation of Star Wars fans—as we head into our 40s and 50s—will reconnect with a franchise that we thought lost its way. But if not—if Star Wars 7 ends up being entirely the adventures of Jar-Jar Binks—well, take my advice: Blame Congress.