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An uneven marketplace of ideas: Amateur screenwriting, the Library of Congress and the struggle for copyright

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Abstract:

In 1912, with demand for story material increasing in a growing market, writing was becoming ever more essential to commercial film production in the United States. With several important legal developments that year, however, the marketplace for story material would begin to collapse as amateur screenwriters failed to gain the same legal protections as those producing finished films, rendering their creative material entirely susceptible to piracy from above. Despite several initiatives by advocates for non-professional writers and a few members of Congress, screenwriters would not receive legal protection for unpublished material until 1978. Throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, then, but dating back to the origins of copyright protection for finished commercial films, US copyright law encouraged Hollywood to produce story material in a closed, intellectually isolated and commercially protected shop, more closely resembling an enigmatic ‘culture industry’ than a ‘people’s art form’. This article examines a convergence of state institutions, private enterprise and commercial trade press that helped to radically re-define the creative processes underwriting film production and the system of compensation for creative material that would delimit relations of production at the beginnings of the American film industry.

Keywords: Library of Congress; cinema history; commercialization; copyright; regulatory capture; screenwriting

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1386/josc.2.2.179_1

Affiliations: Independent Scholar

Publication date: 2011-03-15

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  • The Journal of Screenwriting aims to explore the nature of writing for the moving image in the broadest sense, highlighting current academic thinking around scriptwriting whilst also reflecting on this with a truly international perspective and outlook. The journal will encourage the investigation of a broad range of possible methodologies and approaches to studying the scriptwriting form, in particular: the history of the form, contextual analysis, the process of writing for the moving image, the relationship of scriptwriting to the production process and how the form can be considered in terms of culture and society. The journal also aims to encourage research in the field of screenwriting, the linking of scriptwriting practice to academic theory, and to support and promote conferences and networking events on this subject.
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