Fine Arts

Curt Sachs once said that “dance is the mother of the arts.” Sounds very eloquent, doesn’t it? You can’t help but think of a beautiful ballerina gracefully cascading along the stage, performing in front of an adorning audience. Now, take this quote and those serene images, place them on train tracks, wait for speeding train to hit, and…boom! You now have Dance Moms, Lifetime’s latest so-called reality show and voyeuristic indulgence featuring infamous dance studio owner Abby Lee Miller, several of her young dancers, and their overbearing moms. The show appears to be loosely scripted, at best, to contrive needless drama and controversy. Does anyone seriously believe that these moms were genuinely outraged by the “wildly inappropriate” costumes their daughters were wearing? Pah-lease!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04qKJ1QcR8Y&feature=player_embedded

Not surprising that the best they could do was Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on Lifetime. (Although we can all be grateful to the show for helping to bring the phrase “prosti-tots” into the vernacular. So, you know, thanks for that.)

Before I write any further, I should probably confess that I am both a former dance competition kid and, by definition, a dance mom. Like the Abby Lee dancers, my 11-year old daughter dances nearly 20 hours a week, performs in nine group routines and two solos, and attends many of the dance competitions and conventions featured by Lifetime. So, are the rest of us dance moms angry that the show entirely ignores the positives of youth dance in favor of gross sensationalization? That it fails to point out that, instead of coming home from school and sitting on the couch playing video games, these dance kids are getting incredible exercise, learning an art form, gaining performance skills, building self-confidence and creating life-long friendships? That it ignores how the drive and ambition these kids build as young dancers will launch them into a variety of successful, non-dance careers? Absolutely. Am I writing this blog to express my distain for Lifetime’s unfair and irresponsible depiction of the dance world? Maybe. But behind all the pirouettes, the show raises some interesting and novel legal issues. Really.
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This Christmas, my mother-in-law gave my dog-obsessed daughter a gadget that (ostensibly) allowed her to view life through the eyes of our dog, Olive. It was a digital camera that attached to Olive’s collar, and it randomly snapped a picture every minute or so as Olive roamed around our yard and went about her daily, um, business (no, thankfully, it didn’t photograph what was going on at that end of the dog…). Well, we got a lot of pictures of grass and her food bowl, and a couple of catawampus views of our agapanthus and geraniums, which were cool in a canine fun-house sort of way. But I definitely wouldn’t have put any of them in a frame. I mean, I love my dog, but Ansel Adams she ain’t.

Well maybe I should reconsider. You see, a fantastic self-portrait taken by a monkey has been sweeping the internet, and causing quite a ruckus in certain copyright circles. (How is this macaque already better at self-portraits than 95% of people posting their pictures on Facebook?) Apparently, when award-winning nature photographer David Slater momentarily walked away from his tripod while filming black macaques in Indonesia, one of the monkeys took over, snapping hundreds of pictures. It isn’t quite Shakespeare, but the now-famous grinning self-portrait of the chimp is pretty remarkable.

Remarkable enough, it seems, that Slater is trying to steal credit for it. And while this has set off an interesting debate online as to whether, and under what law, Slater might have copyright rights in the macaque’s work, I’m more curious as to what rights the macaque himself ought to have.
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This evening, the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles will be staging “The Trial of Hamlet,” a unique opportunity for law geeks and Elizabethan England geeks to find common ground in mutual geekdom. [Important linguistic clarification: for our purposes, the term “nerd” refers to general intellectualism and personality, while “geek” refers to a more narrow area of interest/expertise/obsession, e.g.,
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As a fellow member of the Law Law Land blogging team, it may be wholly inappropriate for me to comment on Dan Nabel’s recent post “Billions of Bilious Blue Blistering Bowdlerizers! (And What Can Be Done About Them).” [Ed. Note: Nope, not inappropriate at all, Steve.] But when I read about publishing house NewSouth Books’ expurgatation of the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn, I could not but help think about Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. (Law Law Land: come for the legal analysis, stay for the literary exegesis!)

For those who have not read 1984 or who have forgotten it, allow me to explain. In 1984, Winston Smith is employed by the “Ministry of Truth,” which is a branch of the oligarchical, dictatorial, totalitarian, badsoundingadjective-ial, scaryword-ian government of Oceania. He works at the Ministry as an editor in the “historical revisionism” office, where his job consists of editing previously published works to replace true accounts of history with new, false histories intended to support the existing status quo (nerds might call this “retconning”). When he is done with the original document, he is required to drop it down the “Memory Hole,” an incinerator that is connected by a tube to his desk. The only past that may (and can) exist is a past that corresponds with the Party line. [Ever wondered about the distinction between “may” and “can”? Orwell dramatically demonstrates the difference in 1984. It is not that one alternative is permitted and one is not (i.e., may). Rather, it is that there is no alternative. “True” history is not even possible. History “can” be only as the Ministry says.] Those who respectfully disagree are executed, at which point it becomes Winston’s job to delete all references to them from the written record, so that no one can point to any evidence of the offenders ever having existed at all.

Which brings me to NewSouth Books’ version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s masterpiece is so in large part because of its history. This novel could not be written today. And, lucky for us, it was not written today. It was written in 1884. (Coincidentally, 100 years before the year — not the book — 1984.) Although the book is set in the Antebellum Era South, Twain was writing it years after the Civil War and just as Reconstruction was coming to an end. The book brutally satirizes the Old South and the sensibilities of its citizens. Twain portrays the stereotypical, slave owning southerners as buffoons. And he does that in large part through his unmatched use of Southern dialect. At the time, this dialect commonly used the word “nigger.” Twain used the word (in conjunction with the hundreds of other “Southern” words and phrases interspersed throughout the book) both to lend his characters a sense of authenticity and to make a sharp point — that the Old South’s view of slaves and slavery was immoral and ignorant.
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Last week, the New York Times ran a story about a forthcoming new edition of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. According to the Times: “Throughout the book — 219 times in all — the word ‘nigger’ is replaced by ‘slave,’ a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February.” As a parenthetical, the Times also reported that the book substitutes “Indian” for “injun.” (Mercifully, the publisher did stop short of changing the book’s title.)

Needless to say, NewSouth Books’ decision to bowdlerize one of America’s greatest novels has received considerable criticism — not least because responsible readers of Huck Finn recognize that the story actually satirizes and demonizes the kind of racism that the n-word represents. English Professor Thomas Glave writes that the substitution “will neither erase nor vanquish the ugly history out of which the novel and the offensive word emerged.” Glave further observes that:

“An insistence on obfuscating the past and obscuring the truth of real events is itself violent; such obfuscation does violence not only to the memories of those who suffered, but to our own potential as human beings to remember, and who must be charged, toward our own greater humanity, never to forget.”

Glave’s observation raises some interesting questions. We all know that a public domain work is just that — it belongs to the public and anyone can reproduce it or change it as they see fit. But what if, as Glave suggests, changing a public domain work in a certain way results in harm? While there is clearly nothing wrong with NewSouth Books’ decision to publish its version of Huck Finn, is there any limit to what a person can do with a public domain work?
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Q: I shot a spec pilot in order to showcase my writing/directing talents. In it I use popular and current hip-hop, rock, and pop music. I am not showing this pilot for money — I’m distributing DVDs to production companies and studios, and screening it to generate buzz about my TV series and get a deal (so this project is not to generate revenue directly). Can I use this music without getting clearance or paying ASCAP fees?

A: No. These songs are protected by copyright. Copying them without a license is copyright infringement. Just about any original work is protected by copyright, and in most cases you can’t use it without a license.
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In my former lifetime, before I was a lawyer, I was a dancer (little-known fact — lawyers have hobbies and histories unrelated to the majesty of the law!). From my very first “bumble bee” recital routine to my internship with one of the premiere dance agents in Los Angeles, dance has consumed my life in every way imaginable. I shamelessly admit that, for me, even college drinking games often involved fouetté competitions with my dancer friends. But now that 4 a.m. rehearsals for Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade have been replaced with late night brief writing marathons, like many other former dancers turned dance moms, I am thrilled by the resurgence of dance in pop culture. From So You Think You Can Dance to America’s Best Dance Crew, dance is undeniably hot right now. (Hey, it wasn’t long ago that the best we could get were the Fly Girls on In Living Color.)

The popularity of primetime dance shows has given choreographers a much-needed platform to showcase their talents and share their works with the world. For those of you who tuned into Season 7 of SYTYCD, no one will ever forget ballet dancer Alex Wong smashing Tabitha & Napoleon’s hip hop routine Outta Your Mind with all-star tWitch, or Robert Roldan and Allison Holker’s stunning performance of Travis Wall’s contemporary number Fix You. But for every piece of brilliance we are given from the likes of Mia Michaels, Wade Robson, Tyce Diorio or Dave Scott, just to name a few, there will be hundreds of knock-offs that blur the line between inspiration and imitation. I can’t even count the numerous renditions of Bob Fosse’s Steam Heat I have seen since the mid-80s, some absolutely fabulous, and many others…well, not so much. (For those of you familiar with the dance world circa 1985, how many horrific lyrical numbers did we have to sit through to Ice Castles (Through the Eyes of Love) and I Sing the Body Electric? And for those of you who aren’t, I promise you that was an awesome and highly-recognizable reference.) While many choreographers frequently voice complaints that “they” copied “my” piece, there is very little discussion regarding the legal implications of “borrowing” someone else’s choreography. And, unfortunately, this may be for good reason.
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A few weeks ago, lulled into a stupor by the lazy days of summer, my family and I headed over to LACMA to kill some time before our weekly rendezvous at the neighborhood dog park. The featured installation was a retrospective by renowned conceptual artist John Baldessari, entitled “Pure Beauty.”

My favorite was “Brain/Cloud (Two Views): With Palm Tree and Seascapes.” We walked into a room on which a giant white brain was mounted on a blue wall. On the opposite wall a grainy, black and white projection of the brain was displayed. As we stood there ponderingwhat the heck this was all supposed to mean and trying to look sufficiently artsy, we didn’t realize that the brain was actually recording us on a twenty second time-delay video. Once our images popped up on the opposite wall, my seven-year-old daughter and my seven-year-old husband (in spirit if not in age) immediately began recording themselves karate punching and kicking the air, then literally ran around to the other wall and repeated the same nonsense so that, when the video played, they appeared to be fighting themselves under the watchful — um, eye? — of the brain. The room may have been empty before we arrived, but my family’s antics quickly drew an audience; even the typically stoic museum guards came over for a laugh. My family had become part of the art itself, if not the artist.

I can’t truthfully say that I absorbed the deep artistic meaning likely intended by Baldessari, but Brain/Cloud was pretty cool. And it did get me wondering about copyright (yes, I’m a geek, sue me). I would argue with as straight a face as Baldessari himself that our Battle with the Brain was, itself, a new and exciting piece of art. Just ask the guards. So whose art is it? Baldessari’s for having the idea and setting it up, or ours for portraying man’s eternal struggle against himself?
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