All human beings are ephemera, though we try to resist admitting that. In fact, everything -- interwoven and particulate as it is -- as physicists tell us -- matter and energy shifting back and forth, now as object and now as thought, is only a pattern in the dance music. But in a practical emotional sense every human being is unique in the imprint it makes on the world and on us, the people around that person.
In our times there are many ways of trying to preserve persons, the most bizarre probably being freeze-drying their bodies or plasticizing them in those weird dissections that were circulating in shows for a while -- maybe still are. But more conventionally, esp. in the arts, one tries to preserve the person by preserving their work. People appoint executors as the legal guardians of their work. But what are they guarding? Can they guard anything at all?
When Bob Scriver died, I had no standing to even testify at the hearings about the will, though I’d been the “sits-beside” wife during the Sixties when his significant work was done. It was also my work. The legal executor, the fourth wife and widow, quickly cashed in and dispersed what she was conscious enough to defend from “her” lawyers. The children were dead, the grandchildren took their token payments and ran.
This summer I’m very pleased that the Fort Benton folks have managed to display the series of bronzes about the Blackfeet Indians. It’s the right place to show it. In the interval I did a LOT of reading about artist’s copyrights and estates. It’s a fascinating subject because it is so outrageous and irrational, full of injustice and betrayal -- often by the nearest and dearest. And that’s quite apart from declaring that no one can mention the name of a famous person without paying someone money or becoming liable for damages caused by reporting anything that diminishes the value of that pot of gold, no matter how true.
When I began typing up the class and production notes of Alvina Krause, “legendary” acting coach, I wasn’t thinking about any of this high-powered stuff. I just wanted to consolidate and dispatch the wisdom: if it were helpful to others, so much the better. I located some classmates -- we’re all over seventy now -- to tell them and discovered that they were very interested. Some wanted to send THEIR notes, if I would type them, and others kept speaking of the need for a book. I hit the trusty (!!) Google highway and things begin to develop. There were several literary executors, now all dead but one. (They were AK’s age.)
With an art legacy, there are multiple layers. First is the actual work. None of it exists now, because it was live stage productions. There are some videos of AK teaching. Second is records kept, some of them official, some of them written by herself, some articles about her, and some class notes like mine. There are business records of the Bucknell Theatre Ensemble and things like programs.
Third, we get into dangerous territory. People yearn to know about the creative processes and that often means dipping into private lives. Now we’re talking about letters or possibly the memories of real people. Because acting is about human dynamics, some of this is at the level of psychoanalysis, esp. in the case of young developing actors. Sex, suicide, trauma, family, deep and ambiguous issues. Who has the wisdom to decide what to do with this information?
Wikipedia: “If a sympathetic and understanding friend is in the position of literary executor, there can be obvious tensions: what is to be managed is not just a portfolio of intellectual property, but a posthumous reputation. Wishes of the deceased author may have been clearly expressed but are not always respected. Family members often express strong feelings about privacy of the dead. For example, biographical writing is likely to be of a quite different authority if it is carried out with access to private papers. The literary executor then becomes a gatekeeper.”
I once had a friend whose yard had a nice gate. In fact, it was so nice that when he took down the fence, he left the gate. That’s the kind of gatekeeper we’re talking about in a world where copyright is totally ineffective and literary executors, unless they have physical possession, have no power. Every published book of mine has been pirated and so have Bob Scriver’s bronzes.
Here comes another curve: “The role of the literary executor has been extended to digital properties, including blog or social networking profile posts in the form of the 'digital executor.' “The term "digital executor" was allegedly coined by Canadian blogger Derek K. Miller (1969-2011) . . . a number of services have been established to enable selected survivors of loved ones to carry out duties with the deceased's digital properties, including passwords, accounts, email inboxes, posts and conversations.”
The courts must dread to see this coming, but the lawyers are rubbing their hands together. The ownershp of creative works has turned out to mean you can do whatever you can get away with and whatever is just too complex and expensive to fight. Estate law is business law and more likely to be tort civil law than criminal. Any good law responds to some basics:
1. Clear definitions of what is involved.
2. Clear boundaries between right and wrong.
3. Assignment of enforcement duties and the funding to actually do it.
4. Proportionate penalties.
If a teacher of acting has not explicitly written a book, but a book is created by compiling class notes and plans; or if a blog has not been compiled into a book, but it’s quite possible to do that, then what happens? Who is the author? If someone downloaded parts or all of this blog and sold them as a book, what recourse would I have? (At least I could prove I wrote them and when. As long as the provider exists.) Who would determine the value lost or gained? These are the kinds of questions that have prompted “Creative Commons” which proposes that anyone can use the material, so long as proper credit to the originator is given. I’m in favor.
Once again, the law of the value gradient applies. What has no value in one place or time, may have high value at another place and time. And there is also a damage gradient: disclosures from one place and time might be damaging and in another context be not just neutral, but actively healing. These are inducements to transgression.
What is tantalizing about the materials and memories created by Alvina Krause is that they are so much about supporting the greatest good to all humans, promoting understanding and courage. These are not advice about how to wring sensationalism out of emotion, but rather how to stand tall and keep one’s head in the middle of the maelstrom society can often be.