Posted tagged ‘Woody Allen’

Who Owns Woody Allen?

May 18, 2009
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?