Homage or Humiliation? Moral Rights, Vertigo, and The Artist

Photo by Martin Dee;
smile by Mira
The 1709 Blog is delighted to bring readers the first in a series of guest blog posts by Mira T. Sundara Rajan on moral rights. Mira should require little introduction to anyone who is concerned with this important subject, since this blog reviewed her book, Moral Rights, last year (here). Mira's next book, Moral Rights: A Guide to Global Practice, is in the pipeline. The subject of her first guest post is ...
Homage or Humiliation? Moral Rights, Vertigo, and The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius’ film, “The Artist,” was a sensational 2011 tribute to silent movies - and also, as the director has since argued, to Hitchcock’s classic 1958 film, “Vertigo” (see BBC News, 10 Jan. 2012). The climactic scene of The Artist plays out to the accompaniment of the haunting score from Vertigo, composed by brilliant film composer and long-time Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Hermann. In a silent film with no accompanying dialogue or environmental sounds to distract, the juxtaposition of new visuals and old music could not be more stark. For those familiar with Hitchock’s original -- called, by some critics, the greatest film of all time (while Hermann’s film score has been called “the greatest score ever written for Hollywood”: see Alex Ross, The New Yorker, Feb. 24, 2012) -- the feeling of déjà vu is intense. Actress Kim Novak, who played dual roles as Hitchcock’s mysterious heroine in Vertigo, called it a “rape”: “I feel as if my body - or at least my body of work - has been violated by the movie” (BBC News, 10 Jan. 2012).

As a lawyer interested in the moral rights of authors and artists, I couldn’t agree more. The situation surrounding the music for The Artist is a perfect, practical illustration of just how a moral rights violation can occur. Moral rights are based on the twin principles of attribution, which means adequate acknowledgement of the authorship of a work, and integrity, the notion of maintaining the quality of a work intact. The moral right of integrity is particularly relevant where the treatment of the work might cause damage to the author’s reputation.

In the case of Vertigo and The Artist, a highly original work was removed from its creative context and placed into an entirely new one. The use of the original music raises questions of both attribution and integrity. In the film titles, The Artist make no mention of Hermann at all, but only credits Ludovic Bource as the author of the film’s original score -- Hermann’s name appears deep within the end credits (see Alex Ross, above). While the scene is playing, there is no indication that the film has moved from original music to the Vertigo score. The music that is played is taken from Vertigo with no alterations. It is the music from Vertigo’s crucial love scene, in which the doomed heroine re-appears as if resurrected from the dead. And, although the images from Vertigo are not featured, anyone who is familiar with the original film will be reminded of them. Can moral rights in a film be infringed by an evocative allusion through the use of its music, even though the images per se have not been “copied”?

The integrity question, of course, is still broader. Does the removal of film music from its original context amount to a violation of integrity? Is the fact that the music was played without any alteration support the argument that its integrity was maintained by the makers of The Artist, or does it, in fact, violate integrity to replicate exactly the same music in a new context -- akin to copyright infringement in the usual sense? And what about the integrity of the musical score in the new film? Could Ludovic Bource have sued the film’s director for overriding his choices, and substituting the segment from Vertigo for Bource’s own, original composition?

The nature of film-making brings an added level of complexity to these questions. Film is a composite work based on the contributions of many individuals -- producer, director, author of the screenplay, author of the original musical score -- and, of course, the actors who deliver original performances. Worldwide, there is little agreement on who should be considered the “author” of a film. Many jurisdictions, including France, recognize co-authorship, with both director and author of the musical score acknowledged as joint authors of the film. In the case of the film composer, he or she may be simultaneously entitled to two authorial copyrights -- one for the original score, and one in the film as a whole. At WIPO, a new treaty on copyright in “audiovisual performances” is currently pending; if this is adopted, it appears very likely that the moral rights of actors to the attribution and integrity of their performances in films will be explicitly entitled to protection, as authors’ moral rights are now protected under the Berne Convention.

In the case of Vertigo, whose moral rights have been violated? Bernard Hermann’s, as the composer of the musical score? Alfred Hitchock’s, as the director who was responsible for the combined effect of music plus images, and gave the music its narrative significance? The actors -- Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart -- who played their parts against the background of the music, and infused it with emotional intensity and poignancy?

Finally, the central role played by technology in this dilemma can hardly be overstated. Who says that moral rights have lost their relevance in a technological age? On the contrary, we live in the age of sampling, re-using, and remixing. The juxtaposition of Vertigo and The Artist is only made possible by the technology that remasters and integrates the original musical score into the new production. Moral rights are not only relevant to technology; they represent some of the key cultural issues of our time.

Those familiar with economic copyright might instinctively feel that what happened in The Artist is a form of free-riding on the labours of another. From a moral rights perspective, it amounts to emotional blackmail. As Kim Novak points out, the makers of The Artist are "using [the] emotions [that Vertigo] ... engenders as if it [they] were their own." Ironically, “The Artist” hails from France -- a country that arguably has the longest-standing and most powerful tradition of protection for moral rights in the world. In view of this cultural and legal tradition, the directorial choices in “The Artist” are even more difficult to understand.

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