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Ready Player One, Terror Nullius, and the question of digital copyright laws in a virtual future

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On Tuesday evening this week, two premieres took place in Australia for two very different films. These films could hardly be more different in many respects, including artistic ambition and the scope of their resources. Nevertheless, they share fascinating similarities. I’ll get to these in a moment, and what they mean for a point in history synonymous with extraordinary growth, flux and convergence in media and technology – and by turn, in digital art.

The first film you’ve almost certainly heard of: director Steven Spielberg’s virtual reality-themed blockbuster Ready Player One, which had its Australian premieres in Melbourne and Sydney. Since Spielberg is almost incapable of making a new movie these days without in some way (usually explicitly) referencing the past, perhaps it’s no surprise the veteran filmmaker chose to adapt Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel, which builds into its premise a veritable buffet of ‘80s pop culture references. In the book/film the creator of a virtual second life, OASIS, was a huge fan of the ’80s, so he littered his digital universe with recreations of movies and games that inspired him.

In one scene, characters search for hidden Easter eggs in a virtual reconstruction of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. They enter and see the typewriter Jack Nicholson’s character banged away on, writing his great, somewhat repetitive screed about all work and no play. One character (who hasn’t seen the film) accepts an invitation from the creepy twin girls to play with them. He escapes and takes refuge in…Room 237. Spielberg stays in the room after Kubrick cut away, meaning we get to see considerably more of the crazy monster hag lady.

The other film you might not have heard so much of. Terror Nullius: A Political Revenge Fable in Three Acts (pictured above) is a 55 minute production from the two-person art collective Soda_Jerk, now screening at Melbourne’s ACMI. It belongs to a style of filmmaking that has its roots in electronic music, employing a sample-based approach that remixes bits and pieces of old scenes in order to create new meaning in its retelling of Australian history. For example, we discover what happened to the girls who disappeared at Hanging Rock: Mick Taylor from Wolf Creek shot them dead. This is revealed in a moment that cleverly stitches elements of the two texts together.

What we are seeing here is something different, something very contemporary. A spectacular blurring of boundaries.

Ready Player One is an at times interesting film; Terror Nullius is a fascinating one. Both go well beyond simple intertextuality or fan fiction. They take pre-existing media and repackage them, blurring the line between old and new, in turn creating a kind of meta post-postmodernism: making a convention out of drawing attention to conventions, and creating another text from which future texts will draw.

Media representations have always been cyclical and multi-platform, the bible being one of the oldest and most prominent examples of transmedia storytelling. But what we are seeing here is something different, something very contemporary. A spectacular blurring of boundaries: of mediums; of digital content; of ways of watching and experiencing.

Intrigued by how copyright laws applied (or didn’t) to Terror Nullius, I put the question to Soda_Jerk. Here’s what the two filmmakers told me: “We think of all our works as probes designed to test the parameters of the law, but to date have never had an issue. Although largely untested in courts, there are some legal protections that exist such as the Fair Dealing exemptions for instances of parody and satire in Australia, or the more robust protections of Fair Use within US copyright law.”

There was no need to ask Spielberg or Warner Bros. this question, of course, given one can safely assume the studio dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” on matters of permission and legal clearance. More interesting than the question of what would happen if they didn’t, is how that same question might apply to makers of the kind of virtual content we see depicted in the film. Take, for example, the VR construction of the Overlook. What if the people who made that immaculate virtual recreation did so without the blessing of the copyright holder?

The future of pirating films might not be watching them; it might be experiencing them.

It is reasonable to assume the default position of copyright holders would not be: ‘go nuts, do as you please, you can have our IP for free’. Examples of content makers skirting copyright laws in the virtual realm are not just possible, but inevitable. When this occurs some very interesting things will happen.

It has already become de rigueur for Hollywood studios to augment the release of blockbuster movies with VR experiences that recreate and/or build upon worlds depicted in their films. There are many examples of this including VR content for Star Wars, Coco, Alien: Covenant, Lego Batman, IT and Jurassic World. In 2016, a British VR developer recreated scenes from three Hayao Miyazaki movies (Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle) allowing viewers to experience them, first hand, in immersive 360 degree environments.

It would fly in the face of history, and even human behaviour, to suggest that all VR content makers going forward will only create these kinds of experiences with the blessing of the rights holders. The future of pirating films might not be watching them; it might be experiencing them. The copyright lawyers of tomorrow have a nightmare on their hands.

As for the audience, the possibilities are endless. To say an article such as this scratches the surface would constitute great exaggeration. Soon augmented reality will be dangling all sorts of things in front of our eyeballs, and humans will be swallowing computers the size of pills. We are the wildest dreams of our ancestors. Copyright issues might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we contemplate electric dreams and a Philip K Dickian future, but it’ll be fascinating to see where this all heads – and what implications there are for artists, and the nature of authorship.


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