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As with his creative works, Merce Cunningham had a vision for his legacy

The choreography created a precedent-setting living egacy plan to avoid the bitter feuds that entangled Martha Graham's work after her death.

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Some rights-holders of literary materials, like J.D. Salinger and the estates of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, have used copyright to block creative re-use, borrowing, quoting, and reworking original material. But digital dabbling threatens to outrun the law, as sampling, mash-ups, and appropriation of copyrighted material become increasingly common.

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"With the wild and woolly culture of the Internet, the attitudes toward copyright are changing," according to Mark Fowler, a New York intellectual-property attorney. "Almost anything goes," he says, as sole authorship fades into extinction.

Grethe Holby, executive artistic director of the Family Opera Initiative, a nonprofit organization that develops and produces new musicals, sees digital access as both friend and foe. "We're expected to put what we're doing on our website, Facebook, MySpace, and blogs. People expect to see videos and hear music clips." But then others can tap her work for their own purposes. "It's a Wild West right now," she says. "Sometimes that's when huge discoveries happen. There are exciting, unforeseen frontiers by it not being so codified." And, Ms. Holby adds, a website is "a huge marketing tool" to promote new work and gain funding.

New York choreographer Jane Comfort has been inhibited artistically in the past by copyright barriers. She now commissions new scores for her dances rather than attempting to use copyrighted music. "It is stultifying and difficult," she says. "The music industry and literary estates can be really tough."

It took Holby 10 years to get past Umberto Eco's gatekeepers. Once she swung a face-to-face meeting with the Italian author, he immediately granted approval to adapt his children's book, "Three Astronauts," for a new opera.

"Copyright needs to get more up-to-date with the way things are being made these days," according to Lynn Thomson, artistic director of America-in-Play, a theater group that develops new work inspired by plays in the public domain. "Copyright laws need to adjust to the fact that collaborative work is what the 21st century is about." In her group's last production, six writers shared authorship credit.

Contemporary composer Joël Durand, a professor of composition at the University of Washington in Seattle, knows composers rely on royalties for income but says, "I wish we were not so obsessively entrenched in our little discoveries." He'd like his work to be freely available since, Durand says, "Everything we do is universal in a spiritual way. It all belongs to everybody because it doesn't come from us as individuals." Works "of an aesthetic nature," he adds, are produced "in collaboration with the world, and the creator should offer it to all rather than clasp their fists around their thought for gain."

Holby, too, wonders if unfettered access might flower into "a new Renaissance with everyone inspiring everyone else."

Although the Cunningham living legacy plan aims to preserve its founder's vision intact as custodian of his intellectual property, that does not mean the choreography will be frozen forever, like an artifact of the past. As a choreographer, Cunningham always welcomed new technology and pioneered countless innovations. Collaboration, chance, and change were the very cornerstones of his approach.

Although the sun has set on his career, a new dawn inspired by his achievement may follow. "Ideas," as the artist Robert Rauschenberg, Cunningham's collaborator, said, "are not real estate."

Neither is intellectual property. It could be a site where past art is not just preserved but fertilizes future growth.

"Dancing is a process that never stops," Cunningham said when announcing his living legacy plan, "and should not stop if it is to stay alive and fresh."