Who Owns Woody Allen?

Woody Allen visits his own likeness in Spain

Woody Allen visits his own likeness in Spain

The New York Times reported today that American Apparel has settled a lawsuit with Woody Allen (to the tune of a cool $5,000,000) over the use of a still of Allen in traditional Hassidic dress from Annie Hall (1977).

Two things interest me about this:

(1) What exactly was wrong with using the still from the movie? Is the idea that Woody Allen owns his face, his film, or something else? Allen himself was quoted as saying that use of the image was “sleazy” and “infantile.” Was there something antisemitic, here, perhaps? The moral charges from the prosecution aren’t clear, especially as reported by the Times.

(2) Dov Charney, CEO of American Apparel, claims he only settled because his insurance company told him it would be best, and that he doesn’t regret using the image at all: “I’m not sorry for expressing myself.” His defense appealed notably to principles of free speech and fair use.

So whose side should we take, the corporate CEO who sticks up for the right to recycle existing images to produce innovative advertisements, or the crotchety old actor-director playing the copyright cop? Charney’s defense sounds fairly self-interested, as if he’s exploiting free speech and fair use. Allen, on the other hand, made a flabby yet tight-fisted defense based on a rather conservative interpretation of property law. How does this compare with, say, the episode in 2005 when Nike pirated the iconic cover of the Minor Threat discography?

Finally, it’s worth noting that this settlement put an end to a media circus which has been going on for a while, already. The Times wrote:

“The settlement brought to an end an episode that pitted controversial figures from the fields of film and fashion against each other in a highly public fashion.”

Including: Charney being slapped with sexual harrassement charges that frankly smack a bit of Allen’s own career, Charney’s defense calling a number of Allen’s past lovers as character witnesses to smear him, and an uncomfortable statement from Charney saying that he identified with Allen because they “had both been the subject of unfair media-driven scandals.”

Amidst all the sleaze, Charney makes a good point, and that puts me in a strange bind intellectually. On the one hand, I feel compelled to defend the value of free speech and fair use. But if corporations can appropriate culture as simply as individuals can, then we should probably judge each particular case of appropriation on its own. In the end, this farcical lawsuit reveals a key question: who appropriates what, for what reasons, in what contexts?

Is Allen just being an oportunist, evoking property law only when he dislikes the appropriation and not – as with the statue above – when he likes it? Is this a fair weather property defense? Is Charney abusing high-minded ideals in order to defend a more base quest for profit? What do we make of this mess?

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3 Comments on “Who Owns Woody Allen?”

  1. P Says:

    My understanding is that a signifiant aspect of Allen’s compaint was that the billboard not only used his image, but somehow tarnished his reputation and thus perhaps the marketability of his own personal brand.

    Charney then countered with the arguement that after all of his personal scandals, Allen’s reputation is already sunk (the brand is a depreciated asset, if you will) so that the American Apparel ad could not materially damage it. A smarter response on Charney’s part would have been to say that the ad was intended as a critique of Woody Allen, at which point fair use doctrine could be applied even more easily, as we recently heard from Cory Doctorow.

    Admittedly, I am not a good enough Jew to be able to read the Yiddish text on the billboard, but I have read online that it translates to “the holy rebbe,” which makes the whole stunt seem more like it’s supposed to be laughing at the Lubavitcher’s ubiquitous pictures of Rebbe Schneerson as much as it’s really about Allen per se.

    So, I come away from your post with two sets of questions:

    1. How do we parse the conflict between community/commercial value when both are applied to the self, as they are for the personal brand (e.g., Martha Stewart, Oprah, etc.) or celebrities in general. Is a celebrity’s identity somehow “intellectual property” due to it’s potential marketability? Is this substantially different than notions of slander or libel?

    2. Can we really turn the tables on appropriation appreciation so easily by raising the Nike/Minor Threat example? Is the difference not that Nike was seeking to make a profit off a decidedly non-commercial cultural moment whereas most small-time appropriators are just mashing for the joy of it, or to make an artistic statement? Would it be different if a small-time band was selling CDs with a cover of, say, a popular Paula Abdul song?

    • pizzapelsa Says:

      Your point about Nike and a certain small-time not being so different is a good one – difficult, and important. In the last several posts, we’ve been circling around the issue of where to draw the line between ‘fair use’ and ‘unfair use.’
      > We’ve asked what different criteria can be used to judge use: ethical, economic, legal, community-based, corporate-backed, etc.
      > We’ve asked whether the size of the user matters – does it matter if this hypothetical band was “small time,” or if Nike is the giant beast that it is?
      > We’ve asked what different kinds of objects can be claimed as property – ideas, personas, images, etc.
      And for gossip’s sake, let me say that a certain small-time band only ever profited off of Paula Abdul at paying live shows – we actually never released a recording of that song.

  2. P Says:

    Actually, I’m not so sure I want to argue that the Nike and the small time band should be equated in these examples (even if the band was really making a little money off of the Paula Abdul song). To the contrary, I think there is real difference between:

    A) Taking corporate culture and appropriating it for artistic expression, even with some small-scale economic benefit.

    B) Taking grass-roots cultural products and appropriating them for corporate profit, even if there is some small degree of artistic interpretation involved.

    Beyond just the “size” of the appropriator, I think the difference boils down to the two types of communities and economies represented at the heart these two types of entities.

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