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Copyrighting dance

I had a stimulating dinner conversation with someone who works for an institution that preserves the work of a well-known choreographer. (I’m being a bit cagey because I may not be representing this person’s views accurately.) The institution licenses productions very carefully and is stringent in insisting that every element of the productions be authentic, i.e., be as the work was originally produced.

Predictably, I wondered why the institution didn’t loosen up. The choreographer would have more influence because her (or his — caginess!) works would be more frequently performed. After all, if the Beethoven Institute insisted that all performances must be on original instruments, using exactly the same pacing, intonations, sonic dynamics, etc., as Beethoven intended, our culture would be far poorer because we’d hear much less Beethoven and many fewer creative interpretations of his works. In fact, Beethoven would have copyrighted himself right out of culture.

But, replied my dinner companion, it’s different with the work of a great choreographer. The work consists of the details of music, costume, lighting and gesture. The gap between composition and performance is smaller than with a musical score; in fact, there is no gap.

I am not convinced. Nor am I not unconvinced. I think I think that the magic of metadata could let us have our cake and dance it too: the association could authenticate those performances that met its criteria, while freely (liberally, if not for free) permitting non-canonical performances. I don’t know the status of Gilbert and Sullivan’s copyrights, but the D’Olyly Carte group performs a similar metadata function: There are many productions of Gilbert and Sullivan works — a couple of weeks ago, we saw a delightful Mikado that updated lyrics with references to Dick Cheney’s little list — but if you want to see an authentic version, you go to D’Oyly Carte.

But, much as a I like metadata, I’m not confident that I understand the dimensions of the issues in copyrighting something that seems to fall between a score and a performance. [Tags: ]

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