Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline
queen_of_kithia

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A confession, and some thoughts on copyright law.

You may have noticed that lately my "Year of Bert & Ernie" project has become more of an Ernie-and-Cookie-Monster project, and I must confess that that was entirely by design. There is a precedent of Bert-and-Ernie material being misinterpreted in the context of Pride Week, and while I try to respect everyone's right to an individual interpretation, even if it is incompatible with my own, I do not appreciate the gossip that follows poor Bert and Ernie around, and I didn't want to run the risk of contributing to it, however unintentionally.

I feel that I've already made my feelings on the subject sufficiently clear, such that I don't necessarily feel that I need to rehash them yet again. For further information and/or clarification, I once again recommend this excellent essay, written from an LGBTQ perspective, which makes the case that it is possible to support marriage equality without being a Bert/Ernie shipper.

With all that iterated and reiterated, I must address the new New Yorker cover depicting my two oldest friends. As is often the case in these situations, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it is beautiful, understated and--like all works of art--open to interpretation. On the other hand, in the context of the recent Supreme Court victory for marriage equality (about which I am delighted, by the way), the artist's intention is unmistakable.

The Sesame Street Muppet characters have been such an integral part of our culture for so many years that some of us literally cannot remember--and perhaps cannot even imagine--a world without them. Those of us under the age of 45 regard them as our childhood friends, and those older than 45 might regard them as members of an extended family. Therefore, it makes sense that each of us has a certain proprietary feeling over them, from which stems both an assurance that our own interpretation is the only "correct" interpretation and a related disinclination to even consider the validity of any other interpretation.

Perhaps it even gets to the point where some of us forget that these characters are NOT in the public domain. Yet imagine, if you will, a scenario in which there was an identical picture on the cover of the New Yorker, except that it used characters owned by Disney. It's actually quite difficult to imagine anyone being that monumentally foolish, isn't it? Because we all know that if you were so foolish, you'd have the pants sued off you before you could say, "fair use." It's probably safe to say that Disney can afford to be a lot more litigious than the nonprofit Sesame Workshop can. While the Workshop has been known to bring copyright infringement suits in the past, I would imagine that they have to pick their battles carefully.

The copyright for Sesame Street characters rests with Sesame Workshop; or, to put it another way, the Workshop has custody of the characters. The characters themselves belong to children, and no one--not Jack Hunter and the New Yorker, not Mitt Romney and the GOP, not even President Obama himself--has the right to use them for personal gain or to advance an agenda--even if the cause be just--without the consent of their caretakers at the Workshop.

It puts me in mind of the petition from two years ago asking the Workshop to "allow" Bert & Ernie to get married. Leaving aside for a moment the question of what effect the inherent silliness of a Muppet wedding would have on the cause for marriage equality, I think the very act of starting up such a petition to explicitly codify characters' sexual orientation sends an irresponsibly confusing message in itself, i.e., that one's sexuality can be determined or changed by popular vote, rather than being something that one identifies for oneself.

I wonder if anyone ever takes into consideration what a difficult position these usually well-meant gestures put the Workshop in. If the Workshop representatives say that Bert and Ernie are not gay, they risk being accused of abandoning the commitment to equality and global acceptance that the Workshop has maintained for over four decades. If they were to say that Bert and Ernie are gay, they would risk alienating the parents whose children need to hear the messages of equality and global acceptance most of all. If they say that Bert and Ernie are puppets that do not have a sexual orientation--which I've always understood to mean that all interpretations, even the apparently contradictory ones, are valid--both sides accuse them of copping out. It's a no-win situation for the Workshop and, given the immeasurably far-reaching good that it has done all over the world for the last 40+ years, the idea of someone--anyone--co-opting the characters for their own purposes, acting as if they can rip off the Workshop's copyright with impunity, absolutely makes my blood boil.

However, in the event that it becomes known via reliable sources that the Workshop did, in fact, give their permission to the New Yorker for the Bert & Ernie cover, I will offer my sincere apologies to the wounded parties and will not say another word against the cover, the artist or the magazine from that moment on.

While we may feel a sense of ownership over the characters, we do not own them. Sesame Workshop owns the copyright and, like it or not, they have the right to do (or not do) with the characters what they will.
Tags: muppets, politics, sesame street
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