By Chris Wallace
To be or not to be a copyright pirate – that is the question, along with whether there can be a reasonable moral if not a legal defence for piracy. The cult hit in Britain of the recent BBC production Sherlock, a contemporary take on the famous residents of 221B Baker Street, has severely tested these questions over the Australian summer.
Making my living from copyright, piracy to me has always been an unequivocal scourge. No exceptions. But there’s a respectable alternative view. Intellectual property regulators live in the dark ages and use the equivalent of stone tools, it goes, and the solution is to release content for purchase on all platforms, everywhere, simultaneously. That way the incentive to pirate is eliminated for those who want to respect copyright and pay for the product but aren’t willing to wait months or years for it to show up here.
The BBC Sherlock series achieved both cult status and incredible ratings instantly in Britain when broadcast in 2010 – quite an achievement for a late 19th century, out-of-copyright detective series featuring a character based on one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s old lecturers at Edinburgh University medical school.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the new “Sherlock” – tall, intense, with strange blue eyes and huge features so sculpted you’d think someone had just cut them untidily from a block of clay with a trowel. The Sunday Times describes him as “wordy, baroque, angular and a little esoteric” but this underplays the transfixing weirdness of Cumberbatch’s big featured look, the beefy brain he brings to his work along with a voice that sounds like a sexy Alan Rickman. Somehow you’ve just got to watch him.
The “consulting detective”, as Cumberbatch’s Sherlock styles himself, still plays the violin but also sports a smartphone and has an invisible army of homeless people who gather information on the ground faster than Scotland Yard’s legion of detectives. Martin Freeman’s “Watson” – a doctor who was in the army, not an army doctor he reminds “Sherlock” – is a shattered Afghanistan veteran who blogs Sherlock into celebrity. Villain “Irene Adler” (Lara Pulver) is a dominatrix with a female love interest in the Royal Family, the photographic evidence of which along with a stack of top secret British government documents are on her iPhone. Andrew Scott plays “Jim Moriarty” as Sherlock’s diabolical evil twin.
When Series Two aired in Britain last month, antipodean Sherlock aficionados naturally wanted to see it right away. Those who broke the copyright laws and downloaded these latest episodes got the full emotional impact of the brilliant final episode in which (spoiler alert) Sherlock plunges to his death from the roof of St Bart’s hospital after the ultimate confrontation with Moriarty.
Those who did would defend their actions thus: since they were going to buy Series 2 on DVD when finally available (much later) in Australia, they felt no moral qualm about downloading it now given the makers stupidly hadn’t made it available for purchase on all platforms in all places simultaneously.
In contrast many of those who acted lawfully and didn’t download Sherlock Series Two, and who will wait until they can buy the DVD here, have had its emotional impact ruined. If you know about Sherlock you probably also read British newspapers online. They were full of stories afterwards debating Sherlock’s apparently fatal plunge, something called into question in the graveyard scene of Series Two’s final moments. Did he really die or not? If not, how did he fall that many floors and survive?
This may sound trivial but it’s clear that those who broke the law and immediately downloaded and watched Sherlock Series Two would have had a much deeper and affecting dramatic experience than those who didn’t and who instead, exposed to all those post-plunge British newpaper stories, knew what was coming and were conditioned with doubt.
Along with copyright is the complementary issue of moral rights. Interestingly, Benedict Cumberbatch figures in a moral rights discussion over his casting as MI6 employee “Peter Guillam” in the new film version of the John le Carré story, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Were Cumberbatch and director Tomas Alfredson wrong to make this character, notably heterosexual in le Carré’s book, gay? Fans of the book are a bit grumbly about it. Le Carré must be relaxed, however – he’s one of the film’s executive producers – and the moral rights belong to him, not the fans. Still, M16 could arguably have done with another token heterosexual.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 4 February 2012