Title

You Can Have It for a Song

How a film that ghosted the internet was in a library all along.

September 5, 2019
 
 

I heard an interesting podcast on my morning walk. (Listening to podcasts is how I bribe myself to exercise.) Code Switch is one of my go-to listens, mainly to fill gaps in my knowledge of history and contemporary issues around race, but this episode, “Searching for Punks,” was fascinating for another reason.

 

It had to do with tracking down a film released in 2000. It was well-received at film festivals but strangely, in an era when it seems if you can’t stream it, surely you can find a copy on eBay, it was hard to find. So the podcasters went on an epic quest, which includes tracking down the filmmaker who doesn't have his contact information plastered all over the internet. Research is still hard, y’all.

It wasn’t on a streaming service. It wasn’t on eBay. It wasn’t on any of the torrent sites. So one of the podcasters doggedly tracked a copy down  – one that was “stuck in a library in Los Angeles.”

Okay, call me over-sensitive, but no, it’s not stuck there. It’s was rescued by the University of Southern California library, which has a lot of special collections and archives. And it’s a good thing too, because even if they wouldn’t let the podcaster check it out, she was able to view it in the library. She wanted a copy, though, so she asked for one from the filmmaker, who had to go to some trouble to get it duplicated. I doubt he’d be cool with doing that for just anyone. That’s one reason we have libraries – to make sharing easy so you don’t have to.

There are a couple of things libraries do: they circulate non-unique material both to their local community and to other libraries through interlibrary loan, one of the greatest inventions of all time, and they preserve unique and rare things, like this film. If USC had circulated their copy, it would probably be worn out or lost by now. In case you’re wondering, the library can’t make a copy for you or digitize it and put it on YouTube for reasons we'll get into.

(By the way, there are at least two other libraries that have copies according to Worldcat. Why isn’t USC’s copy listed there? Archives and special collections are full of unique and hard-to-catalog stuff, so they often rely on finding aids that describe what you might find in a particular collection, hoping to aim researchers in the right direction, and even those aids are enormously time-consuming to create. So much depends on staff having an idea that something might exist and where it might be. The rest depends on the patience of researchers when you can't just Google it.)

As it turns out the film isn’t actually stuck in a library, it’s stuck in copyright law. There’s music in the film, which was an important part of the culture the film is about. But no matter what we hum as we go about our day or whether a crowd can spontaneously break into a song we all know, culture doesn’t belong to us collectively. It’s “intellectual property.” I’m not sure exactly whose property that music is, but it was really successful, so I’m betting the rights are held by a giant entertainment corporation. This is always problematic for creative folks: culture is a pastiche, a bricolage, inspired by and built out of what came before, but ownership rights tend to lock stuff up if it doesn’t fall into that special and limited category, “fair use.” Those songs can't be had for a song. In this case, acquiring the rights to the music in order to distribute the film would have cost millions, and the only distribution company that was willing to take on a gay Black rom-com was too small to manage those costs. According to IMDB, the film grossed a total of $160,083. And most of us will never see it.

So what’s the point of all this? It’s not just to complain about how people characterize libraries, though – okay, it is a little. I was kind of miffed at “stuck in a library.” I’m also not suggesting artists shouldn’t be paid. Of course they should, though I’m going to go out on a limb and say corporations who sign artists take more than their fair share and aren't reasonable about cutting other artists a break.

Mostly this episode was a reminder that, even in an era of ubiquitous content streaming and a culture that encourages exuberant and constant sharing, it’s still easy for things to vanish if libraries don’t have the chance to collect and preserve them, especially when the rights are too damn high.

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