Intellectual Property Still Up for Grabs; Directors, Composers and Writers Want More Control over Their Work - and Bigger Royalties

Article excerpt

Thunderheart, a detective thriller set on an American Indian reservation in the Southwest, had its TV premiere last summer. The film starred heart-throb Val Kilmer and, according to the credits shown on TV screens, was directed by Adam Smithy.

Adam Smithy?

Not really. "Adam Smithy" is a Hollywood tradition, a pseudonym directors use when they feel producers unconscionably tamper with their films. In this case, Michael Apted, the real director of Thunderheart, vehemently objected to 22 minutes of cuts and other alterations.

But if the Directors' Guild of America, the Writers' Guild of America and a handfuld of congressmen on Capitol Hill have their way, the pseudonym Adam Smithy may go the way of silent films. Legislation introduced in the Senate by Republican Alan Simpson of Wyoming and in the House by Democrat Barney, Frank of Massachusetts would grant filmmakers more than just the option of name change to protest altered work; directors screenwriters and even cinematographers would be able to express their objections on screen, or subsequently, on video packages.

Bills touching on an array of intellectual-property rights are winding their way through the halls of Congress. The music industry has geared up some legistive wrangling, while writers and publishers have engaged in low-level skirmishes that someday may errupt into full-scale war in Washington. The battle lines often are drawn between businessmen worried about the bottom line and artists concerned about integrity, but royalties have both camps counterattacking.

Two years ago, movie studios grudgingly agreed to place disclaimers on films altered for television by a process known as "panning and scanning," which changes the height-to-width ratio of a film to fit TV screens and, in the process, discards about 45 percent of the frame's visual information. A pending Film Disclosure Act would formalize such disclaimers and also cover editing, colorization and alterations to soundtracks.

While the issue is cast in terms consumers' rights, it also involves commercial and artistic concerns. In a "Dear Colleague" letter to his fellow representatives, California Republican Rep. Sonny Bono condemned the measure. " [It] would grant rights to those who are paid up front by contract for their talent and services without imposing upon them the risks of ownership," wrote Bono, a former pop star and TV personality. "The producers and distributors shoulder the financial risk and, in exchange, they maintain all the rights awarded by our copyright law."

But Arnie Lutzker, a lawyer for the Artists' Rights Foundation (which represents the Directors' Guild) claims the legislation really is a consumers' bill of rights. "Changing the running time of a film for TV is fine if you know what you're getting" he tens Insight. Marty Waldman, spokesman for the Writers Guild of America-East, agrees: "We're really talking about truth-in-advertising."

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, has called the dispute a family feud, but in the end, he and major film studios probably have little to worry about. The last time Congress acted at the behest of filmakers was eight years ago when directors pressed for legislation to stop the colorization of old movies. The National Film Preservation Board was created to grant "seals of approval" to films preserved and offered in their original black-and-white versions. These days, that system has all but disappeared.

A much livelier contretemps - one that likely will reach the House and Senate floors, is the ongoing struggle between the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP, and the National Restaurant Association, a lobbying group. ASCAP and other songwriters' organizations want larger royalties for music played in public venues.

Currently, the writers organizations charge annual fees to commercial establishments that pipe music through a public-address or multi-screen TV system. …