Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A new way to provide Da Vinci commentary?

By now, we've probably all watched a DVD that offered, as one of its extended features, running commentary by the actors or director of the movie. Pretty standard.

Yesterday, I got to thinking: what if you could distribute alternative commentary that would play right along with the DVD, perhaps pausing the playback if necessary to let lengthy commentary be heard before going on to the next scene? Wouldn't that be a great service to provide when the DVD of The Da Vinci Code comes out?

Instead of having to watch the movie first, then read a commentary and try to relate it to their recollection of the film, viewers would get the commentary in real time, while the movie was playing (you might have to mute or lower the audio playback from the DVD to let the commentary be heard). Seemed to me that it could be a far more effective way of commenting on a work in which the lies come thick and fast.

Now, here comes a weird coincidence. Today, I was delivering some photos to Stanford Law School, which hires me now and then to shoot their events. My oh-so-brilliant idea of the day before was nowhere on my mind. But being addicted to reading whatever catches my eye, I stopped at a bulletin board outside the office of one of the law profs. And while I was idly skimming a couple of newspaper articles about a copyright case he'd been involved in a couple of years back, I stopped dead at one particular paragraph and said to myself, "Hey! Wait a minute! That's my idea!"

As the article revealed, the concept of marketing supplemental commentary (the article mentioned Roger Ebert as an example) is at least a couple of years old. But it got swept up into a lawsuit from (surprise!) Hollywood, aimed at companies that were marketing versions of movies that had the profanity and smut edited out of them. Those versions were meant to make it possible for families to enjoy popular films without exposing the kids to the full gamut of Tinseltown's depravity.

The directors and studios couldn't object to actual copyright infringement, since no new copy of the material was being made; instead, they were up in arms over the possibility that their artistic integrity (cough, cough) would be compromised if everyone wasn't forced to hear every single f*** and s*** they had gratuitously sprinkled into their scripts, every single time one of their masterworks was seen.

The lawsuit appears to have been enough to kill off some small companies that were trying to get started offering the alternative editions. Others, such as Utah-based ClearPlay, pursuing a different and more sophisticated model, held on.

Then last year, Congress intervened with the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act. (At the Thomas link, scroll down to Title II). Altering the viewing experience of a legitimately-bought copy of a movie became legal, as long as "no fixed copy" of the work was made.

Now, it seems to me that supplemental commentary, synchronized to the playback of a DVD, would easily be covered by the Act. After all, the commentary would be original material, and the original work wouldn't be altered at all. It would be no more a copyright infringement than the common practice of watching a sports event on TV, turning down the volume, and listening to the play-by-play on your favorite radio station.

Ideally, a running Da Vinci Code commentary would be done by some of the prominent experts who have already weighed in with print, audio, and video rebuttals of the book. But if they don't, darn it, I'll do it myself.