Is reuse really a new thing?

I was reading this and thinking “I was never particularly into Jonny Quest, but the premise is solid, and if they do something about Hadji it could be a pretty good movie”.

But why  all the remakes? Why does everything have to be a rehash of something from a few decades ago?

The obvious answer is because of ever-lengthening copyright.

But then I thought about how characters and stories have been reused for centuries—millennia, even. From reusing Osiris’ story for both Moses and Jesus, through the endless retellings of Cinderella, to the many adaptations of Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes.

No, what has changed is merely who is doing these retellings. It used to be that everyone and anyone could take a story or character and give it a fresh take. Shakespeare made history doing mostly that. Now, it’s the same person (or entity) over and over for decades.

And I think this has changed the character of these retellings, and that’s the real problem. A really great new version of a story I already know? Great! I don’t even mind a lousy new version, if the great new version also exists. But that’s the problem: if only one entity can make a Jonny Quest movie—or a Star Trek movie, or a Superman movie—then you’re stuck with whatever they create. And since no one can compete with them, there’s no pressure to make sure their new version is closer to the “great!” end of the spectrum than the “lousy” end.

Look at how vibrant the Star Trek fan community is (or was, up until a month ago). Or, for that matter, the fanfic communities around any popular book or tv series. Sure, lots of it is lousy. They’re amateurs. But every once in a while you get a Thor Meets Captain America.

More importantly, we’re never going to see something like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or the Thursday Next series using modern characters under the current copyright regime. Everything stays in its own little silo, and we can never build our culture on it. We’re losing the art of remix.

So it’s not that I hate new versions of old stories. It’s that what used to be the building blocks of our evolving culture has been reduced to culture mining where a very few entities digs the same things up over and over, but rarely can anyone build anything truly new with those raw materials. We don’t get the same degree of newness that we did when copyright was more reasonable in duration and scope, and to tell a new version of an existing story (and make money at it), you had to tell a good version—better than all the other people also telling new versions of the same story.


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