Pride and copyright

So everyone knows that they mixed some zombies into Pride and Prejudice.  And coming soon!  Mr. Darcy is a vampireTwice.

Austen didn’t tell us what happened next, but lots of other people have.  What happens when the Darcys (or the Bingleys) have children? Solve crime? Deal with their families?

Georgiana Darcy was so nice – lots of people are interested in what happened to her.  Caroline Bingley finds her own Mr. Darcy (but he’s an American cousin?  Seriously?).  The existence of the Lydia Bennet story isn’t too surprising — and if you spent your time thinking Pride and Prejudice would just be awesomer if there was more about the De Bourghs, you’re not alone.

And as for Prada & Prejudice up there, well, wacky time travel hijinks seem to send people back to Regency England more than any other time period, don’t they?

And there’s not enough room here for the  straight-up retellings.  Same book, different take –  shift the point of view away from Elizabeth, set it in India, set it in UTAH, play the what-if game, play it again, tell the story but add in more boats.

Tell the story on Facebook, rewrite it for Twitter, tell it with Barbies, turn it into Gone with the Wind (okay, they don’t say they’re doing that, but look at those hats), move it to the next century.

Seriously, if you just want to read the same story one million times, it’s out there for you.

Note: I haven’t read most of these – link DOES NOT EQUAL endorsement!

Looking just a bit ahead on Amazon or similar and it’s pretty clear the steady stream of Austen-inspired stuff isn’t drying up any time soon.  Which is sometimes taken to mean that Austen is awesome, which she is.  There’s lots of mentions of the Austen brand and what it means for an eighteenth-century author to be so currently popular and relevant.

But that brand language is odd because it’s not like you can point to the group of Austen family descendents or the current version of her publisher who own the brand and who are systematically and strategically leveraging it for all it’s worth.  A lot of the stuff above is professionally, commercially produced, but a lot of it isn’t.  There are so many self-published components to the Austen pastiche available on Amazon, and off Amazon.  The Barbie thing?  totally not commercial.  It got me thinking the other day about how much all of this has to do with copyright and how it should work and how it doesn’t.

austenP&P is in the public domain, so anyone can do what they want with the story.  Colin Firth’s particular Darcy may be limited, but that leaves a lot of room for a lot of creativity, some more creative, some more good, some more horribly, horribly wrong.  But a lot of creativity – people building on the creativity and stories of our past.

How much of this creative energy is focusing on Austen because it can?  How awesome would it be if other stories, other artifacts were fair game as well?

2 thoughts on “Pride and copyright

  1. I think it takes one person to do something awesome with Austen for a lot of other people to follow. For me, awesome moments were Emma Thompson’s Golden Globe acceptance speech and Anthony Lane’s review of ‘Kingpin’ in the New Yorker. But for others it might be P&P&Z or Bride and Prejudice. This wave we are riding is a great big one.

    Derivative works exist whether their sources are copyrighted or not. Certainly, the smooth production you get from an editor working on a commercial work can make it more successful. So one possibility is that a commercially successful (and copyright-compliant) derivative work is going to beget more.

    Or perhaps it isn’t a work’s derisiveness that makes it successful, perhaps it’s just genre. Jane Austen is fun to spoof because she was a satirist herself. She’s popular today because her central theme of love’s power to overcome class and wealth resonates with our cultural obsession with free will and ‘the american dream’ – it is up to us to work hard and do right, and everything will work out.

  2. That last point goes to explaining why there so much more reason to talk bout the Austen brand than about the Gaskell or Bronte brands (though I think I would disagree with an argument that many or most of these examples could be called spoofs or satires of the source materials). But overall, yeah, I definitely agree that there’s no one reason why there are so many Austen-related derivative works, and that specific question isn’t really what I’ve been thinking about. I think what I’m saying is not that there should or shouldn’t be more Austen derivations, but that there should be more derivative works period, and the energy around Austen is just one reason I think that.

    But I think the middle piece, the addition of the professional creative resources, or the addition of commercial distribution, is important. A big part of how our culture is creative is how it tells and retells stories. And we can’t do that with very many of our stories, and those we can are so old that they’re not always going to translate and resonate and we’re being hindered in our storytelling because of those restrictions. There are derivative works all over, some of them absolute genius, some of them yes are derivative of derivatives. But when they’re illegal and when they’re restricted, I don’t think we’re better off for it. And absolute crap that exists in the Austen genre doesn’t really change my mind about that, which I find kind of interesting :-)

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