"Space Jam," Copyright and the Death of Culture

There’s a particular moment in the trailer for “Space Jam: A New Legacy” that encapsulates our current tone-deaf, strangely referential culture. It’s a single detail in the background: As LeBron James plays basketball with a cast of horribly smooth-looking CGI “Looney Tunes” characters, the droogs — a violent gang of murderous rapists from the film version of “A Clockwork Orange” — can be seen jeering from the sidelines.  

The droogs can appear in the movie because Warner Bros. Pictures, the studio producing “Space Jam,” owns “A Clockwork Orange.” Still, on the surface, it’s a completely bizarre choice to include these characters in a children’s movie. It’s tonally incoherent and distracting. But this choice is also representative of what our culture has become. Fundamentally, the art and film of today relies on reference above originality. And this shift, from newness to nostalgia, has been helped along by our draconic copyright laws, which benefits huge corporations at the expense of the public. 

A productive artistic culture requires not only quality works but also the free and easy repurposing of those quality works. Shakespeare might be one of the best examples of this. How much has been produced off the backs of Shakespeare’s works? How much worse would we be as a culture if one of his descendants held the copyright to this work? Gone would be most modern Shakespeare adaptations or theatrical production groups such as Shakespeare in the Park. In order to make art, artists need to be able to deconstruct and repurpose work that has inspired them. 

But our current copyright laws impede that artistic process. Copyright lasts for an absurd seventy years after the author’s death. This means that Harry Potter, Star Wars and other influential pieces of modern art won’t be available for creative and commercial use until at least the 2100s. These laws lead to significant, important works being concentrated in the hands of the big corporations like Warner Bros. Wielding this monolithic copyright, companies have produced a culture in which originality is replaced with reference. Instead of novelty, big corporations have resorted to offering us strange intertextuality, but intertextuality only within the bounds of that corporation’s intellectual property. It’s brand-loyal intertextuality. That’s what the “Clockwork Orange” reference is: It’s a reminder of a property that is owned by the same company. Like a watermark, it’s a corporate signifer that doesn’t mean anything — it’s just pointless repurposing. Instead of a motivated artist trying to use the characters and settings of other works to tell their own stories, it’s a soulless corporation using the veneer of reference to engender a false sense of nostalgia for the new movie. 

This is just as true for series like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Marvel struck gold by creating not just one-off superhero stories, but by drawing them into a web of references. In the MCU’s case, these references were used to tell grander narratives, but at its core, the MCU’s design still rested on a notion of a corporation controlling a kind of mini-culture. Copyright has broken our culture into a million miniature cultures, never to overlap.

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” isn’t just a cynical cash-in on the original film’s semi-ironic cult following. It’s also an honest expression of what our current culture is: a culture that is divided up among corporations and obsessed with the reinforcement of already existing ideas. It is a dead culture unable to produce anything new, because our copyright law has immortalized the old — since past art cannot be touched or built upon, it is instead left frozen in time. As a result, corporations are stuck referring back to times when culture was diverse and alive, when new properties and new ideas had a chance of making a big, mainstream splash. That’s why the droogs appear in “Space Jam.” For all the tonal incoherence, it’s a reminder of a time of creativity. That’s what our culture’s been reduced to. It can gesture at, but is unable to produce, the creative.

Fundamentally, art does not belong to an artist. The ideas and feelings associated with a work are the audience’s. We cannot allow corporations to cynically control the goodwill generated for certain properties, wielding what should really be the public’s to accustom us to their hegemonic ownership of art. Remember, Shakespeare was built off the backs of others: He borrowed and stole stories from those that came before him. To have a vibrant culture, we must allow repurposing. Copyright should not last forever. It should not last far past the author’s death. It needs to be significantly shortened. But for now, expect more tonally incoherent corporate self-reference. Expect the droogs.