David Lister: You can't copyright a hero

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The Independent Online

I have a vision. And I'm guessing I can say that without being sued. Were I to say "I have a dream" then I might need to seek legal advice.

The late Martin Luther King's eternally famous phrase, when used in the context of the speech he gave in Washington in 1963, is copyright. That copyright belongs to his surviving children, and they guard it jealously, allowing its use only when their integrity and bank balance are properly satisfied – as they were in 1997 when the children graciously permitted Time Warner multimedia rights for over £19m, and more recently and even more graciously permitted some of the "I have a dream" speech to be used in adverts.

It's a rather strange state of affairs. Not so much that a speech can be copyright, but that newsreel of that speech being delivered in a public place can be. And it became stranger this week with the copyright row threatening Steven Spielberg's dream of making a film about the civil rights leader.

One of King's children had, it seems, said yes to Spielberg. When the two other children learned of this, they said no and threatened to sue their brother. I'm not quite sure why. Spielberg strikes me as the perfect choice for a celebratory and probably heart-rending movie about Martin Luther King. Who do they want? Lars von Trier? Martin Scorsese? Perhaps they're waiting for Eric Cantona.

As I say, a rather strange state of affairs, that an Oscar-winning director can be stopped from making a work of art about a dead hero by that person's family. But, bizarre that it is that newsreel footage can be the property of one family to grant at its whim, does Spielberg need to use it for the movie? Which brings me back to "I had a vision". For if Spielberg can't use the actual words of Martin Luther King, or the newsreel of him speaking, or even his name, does it matter? Is a straight biopic what we want from one of the most imaginative film-makers in Hollywood history? We can become too hung up on biopics as the only way to dramatise a remarkable life, or convey to future generations the message of a great leader.

The world may know that Citizen Kane was based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. But there was no one of that name in Orson Welles's picture. Was it any the worse for that? Or was it 10 times better?

Of course, the words Schindler's List now jump out. But there Spielberg was dramatising a story which relatively few people knew about, certainly not before the publication of the book on which the film was based. And Schindler's face, unlike Martin Luther King's face, was all but totally unknown. I met Spielberg at the UK premiere of Schindler's List, and told the surprisingly shy man how much I had enjoyed it. But I don't think I would have enjoyed it any the less if the name of the hero had been different, and an already part-fictionalised story had been further fictionalised.

Spielberg should make an Oscar-winning film about a fictional civil rights leader, who makes one of the greatest speeches ever made, and meets an early, tragic death. The fictional name would be remembered as long as movies are watched. And the members of that rather strange King family wouldn't half kick themselves.

Don't hold back, José

José Carreras's decision to retire from opera has been followed by a lifetime achievement award at the Classical Brits. The much-loved tenor hugely deserves it, but I still cannot see his face in the papers without recalling one of my hairier moments in journalism.

When Carreras, right, starred at Covent Garden a few years ago in Verdi's Stiffelio, it was quite an event, as this was the first time that the opera had ever been seen in the UK. I managed to get backstage after the performance to find the star to quote his thoughts on the opera for the next day's paper. It was a tight deadline with literally only a few minutes to go. So how did he rate it? "Well," he mused, "it is not Traviata."

Indeed not. So how do you rate it, Señor Carreras? "Well," he pondered, "it is not Trovatore."

That's true? So what is your view on it?

"Well," he frowned, "it is not Don Carlos."

At that moment I realised that he was going to go through the bulk of Verdi's entire oeuvre. And so he did, as the clock ticked.

The sound of silence can be lucrative

Danger Mouse, one half of the funk act Gnarls Barkley, has delivered a blank CD to his record company EMI in a "legal dispute" over his new album. His spokesman said: "All copies will be clearly labelled: 'For legal reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will.'"

Nevertheless, I think it is only fair to review this piece of musical silence alongside other notable examples of the genre. Most famous was John Cage's track "4'33", which saw Cage not touching the piano keys for four minutes and 33 seconds, taking minimalism to its logical limit.

My personal favourite is the late John Lennon's "Nutopian International Anthem". This track on his 1973 Mind Games album consisted of just three seconds of silence, but had the almost psychedelic quality of the Beatles middle period.

Danger Mouse has a lot to live up to.

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