Let Jo March Help You Celebrate World Intellectual Property Day!
Let’s be honest. World Intellectual Property Day (which is this Sunday, April 26) doesn’t immediately stir up the same – uh – partying frisson as Saint Paddy’s day, in terms of breaking out the frothy malt beverages, busting out in green clothes, and for some, making dubious claims of birthright attachment to the Emerald Isle. It’s hard to think of this particular observational day as an excuse to party on with our IPR rights-owning bad selves till it’s 1999 (assuming we’re not IPR-lifting from our beloved Prince to even say that). Of course, it needs to be said, this is all notwithstanding the new-normal obvious: that any kind of close quarter interpersonal celebration is rightfully verboten anyway.
But if we think about it – and at the MPA, we certainly do – maybe we should be celebrating IPR day with more appreciative gusto. After all, to borrow a handy-dandy laundry list from the Copyright Alliance, we are talking about authors, photographers, performers, artists, software developers, musicians, journalists, directors, songwriters, game designers and many other individual creators.
Which, I am guessing, represents at least as many people as our great and beloved friends from Ireland and those looking up from their cups and claiming to be Irish on Saint Paddy’s day.
As we continue to languish in lockdown, one way that we might appreciate the significance of the occasion would be to watch Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and more specifically, one climactic scene that encapsulates a young creator’s plucky insistence to hold on to what is rightly hers.
There is more reason than a single scene to see Little Women, by the way. Gerwig’s film goes one-deeper than straight-ahead adaptation. It’s a vibrant dialogue with Louisa May Alcott herself, the author of the original novel, whose career-long aspiration to express, explore, and answer her own artistic questions and impulses, were consistently hampered and compromised by patriarchal norms. Gerwig fuses Alcott’s character with that of Jo March – our young creator, played by Saoirse Ronan – and makes this a movie about someone writing a book called Little Women. By doing so, Gerwig opens a channel, not only between Alcott and her fictional alter-ego but with all women and other minority voices working to have equitable treatment as creators.
Thus, before we go on, Dear Reader, this is where we must fulfill our consumer advisory responsibilities and inform you that scene spoilers are necessarily a part of this piece. So could all aspiring viewers of the movie not wanting to read any kind of heads-up about plot, please raise their fluttery fans to their eyes or simply avert their glances?
The movie opens with a quote from Alcott: “I had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” It proves to be a prescient harbinger of Jo March’s forthcoming struggles as a woman and an artist, particularly when she offers a publisher the manuscript for her new novel.
It’s great fun to hear the argument whipping forth between Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and Jo, played with earnest, vulnerable conviction by Saoirse Ronan, with Alcott hovering in the ether like Obi May Kenobe.
If the central character of Jo’s novel ends up a spinster, argues Dashwood, no one will buy it.
“The right ending,” he says with some battle-worn authority, “is the one that sells.”
“I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition,” says Jo. “Even in fiction.”
Reluctantly, she agrees, however. Her story is amended to a jollier tale, you might say.
And now – as the voice always says at the beginning of an HBO show – comes the big moment: the contract. As if that plot compromise were not enough, Dashwood tells Jo that he’s prepared to give her five percent of the royalties. It’s worth reading the transcript of what follows.
“So I get five percent of the profit?” Asks Jo.
“Five percent of the net profits,” says Dashwood. “After I recoup.”
“Well, what about payment up front?”
“I’m the one taking the risk in printing this book.”
“Yes, but it’s my book.”
“If it does well, we’ll both make money. If not, I can stay in business.”
“So I get nothing if it fails.”
“No, I’ll give you 500 dollars right now to buy out the copyright.”
Warning, warning, says the empowered Tinkerbell.
“Copyright?” asks Jo.
“That’s the right for reprinting, that sort of thing. Sequels. Characters for other stories.”
“Hmm, might that be worth something.”
“Well, only if it’s a success.”
“I see. It seems like something I would want to own, no?”
“Didn’t you say your family needed the money more immediately?”
“Yes, they do, which is why I want an upfront payment.”
“No, it’s too risky. I’ll only pay for the copyright.”
Jo reflects for a long pause and then she says “You keep your 500 dollars and I’ll keep the copyright. Also, I want 10 percent of royalties.”
“5.5 percent,” he counter-offers. “That’s very generous.”
“Six percent and that’s it.”
“Mr. Dashwood, if I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it.”
Mr. Dashwood is not finished yet. “And you don’t need to decide about the copyright right now.”
“No I’ve decided,” says our creator. “I want to own my own book.”
And there you have it, she wins the right to own her jolly little tale, in a scene that had some similarities to Alcott’s selfsame transactions. As we mark World Intellectual Property Day, Jo’s triumph is an evocative way to appreciate copyright as a bedrock principle, not only economically (the core copyright industries in the US alone add more than $1.2 trillion to the national economy and support more than 5.5 million direct jobs) but as encouragement for all voices to be heard. As Greta Gerwig wrote about making this film: “It matters what we write. It matters what we make films about. I can, because Louisa May Alcott did.”
Featured image: Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in Greta Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN. Photo by Wilson Webb. Courtesy Sony Pictures.