I had a kindergarten class today. It was a relatively light day, as far as academics go. The afternoon was spent with a Christmas “play” (more like a recital, but they called it a play). The rest of the day was spent with Christmas books and a couple short movies. Almost none of them involved Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

This was a problem.

Because over and over again, in any picture book or movie that showed the reindeer without Rudolph, the same response occurred: “WHERE’S RUDOLPH?!?!?!?!?!” My options of explaining this were three:

(1) Rudolph is a registered property of some media rights company and so any story where Rudolph appears must therefore pay this company money. In an effort to make their product less expensive and therefore enjoyed by a larger number of people, writers and producers of Christmas material where Rudolph does not play an integral part will leave Rudolph out of it. This, of course, diminished the enjoyment of the story for kindergarteners everywhere. So tell your parents to write your congressman in opposition to future copyright extensions so that eventually Rudolph can be more widely enjoyed by children such as yourself.

Pros: Accurate and potentially motivating young people for political involvement.

Cons: None of them will understand what the heck I am talking about.

(2) Think of it as though there are multiple parallel dimensions. What takes place in one universe does not necessarily take place in others. For instance, in this story, there are talking bears and wolves. As we know, in our dimension, bears and wolves don’t talk (and are more likely to attack one another than be best buddies). So, while Rudolph may exist in the world of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, he does not necessarily exist in this world of talking bears or wolves or this other world where dogs talk to one another in various accents.

Pros: Concedes the possible existence of Rudolph and places the context of the story within the storybook worlds where they are being told.

Cons: None of them will understand what the heck I am talking about. Except the words “Rudolph doesn’t exist.” They will understand that part.

(3) Rudolph is dead.

Pros: Short and to the point.

Cons: Will make kindergarteners cry.

(4) This story takes place before Rudolph was the lead reindeer. Remember how, at the beginning of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer how Rudolph wasn’t a part of the sled team? This story is like that.

Pros: Does not foreclose existence of Rudolph (and therefore Santa), comparatively short and to the point with an example they may be able to understand.

Cons: Kids have an incomplete understanding of “before” and “after.” Plus, if for instance there are only two reindeer, they will wonder why only two were necessary at the time of the story but Rudolph was one of several. Coming up with an explanation of how union regulations requires the hiring of more reindeer, or how animal rights advocates insisted on it, would require a greater understanding of the real world than kindergarteners are likely to have.

I went with #4, though left out the part about union regulations and instead opted for an explanation that the story took place when there were less people (errr, bear-people) and therefore less presents required carrying and therefore fewer reindeer were required.

To get to a more serious point, this actually is indicative to me of the problem of indefinite copyrights. Rudolph has extended beyond something that some guy made up for Montgomery Ward and into a cultural icon. Not even a pop culture icon, but a through-and-through cultural one. I suppose we should count ourselves fortunate that Santa Claus himself wasn’t invented under the current copyright regime.

(To any kindergarteners reading this blog, that last part is a joke. Because, of course, nobody invented Santa Claus!)


Category: School

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6 Responses to What Copyright Has Wrought

  1. Samson J. says:

    Rudolph has extended beyond something that some guy made up for Montgomery Ward and into a cultural icon. Not even a pop culture icon, but a through-and-through cultural one.

    Yeah, I had no idea that Rudolph was copyrighted and not some age-old part of Christmas folklore. I looked it up on Wiki: he first appeared in print in 1939. It is absurd for a cultural icon to be held hostage by a copyright that dates from before Hitler invaded Poland, when my grandparents were teenagers.

    Side topic: Will, how do you make out as a teacher, being the introvert that you are? Is it a struggle at all?

  2. Kirk says:

    Your Rudolf-integration scheme reminds me of the re-boots that D.C. or Marvel do with their comic universes. The last Star Trek movie did the same thing.

    I’m amazed you put so much thought into it.

  3. trumwill says:

    It is absurd for a cultural icon to be held hostage by a copyright that dates from before Hitler invaded Poland, when my grandparents were teenagers.

    That pretty much sums it up.

    Will, how do you make out as a teacher, being the introvert that you are? Is it a struggle at all?

    Not really. I was nervous about it early on, for other reasons as well as this one, but these aren’t people. They’re kids. Somehow, it mentally makes a difference to me.

  4. trumwill says:

    Your Rudolf-integration scheme reminds me of the re-boots that D.C. or Marvel do with their comic universes. The last Star Trek movie did the same thing.

    It’s probably not a coincidence that I am a (former) comic book collector and this idea came to me as quickly as it did is probably not a coincidence.

  5. Brandon Berg says:

    I believe that this is trademark law, not copyright. Copyright covers specific works, whereas trademarks cover things like names, logos, characters, etc. While copyright is (in theory, at least) limited, trademarks last forever, or until they’re abandoned or lost through estoppel.

    I’m surprised that this hasn’t already happened with Rudolph. It’s not something that one associates with any particular brand.

  6. trumwill says:

    My understanding is that copyrights involve not must works, but ideas, including derivative works. Trademarks is mostly involved in branding, logos, and titles.

    So if Rudolph had lost its copyright and not its trademark, you could create derivative works (he could appear in someone else’s works), such as leading the sled in a separate Santa story, but cannot be used to sell a work (you can’t call it “Santa, Rudolph, & The Other Reindeer”). So even if the trademark is not associated with a particular brand (and thus lost), you still have the copyright because any story where Rudolph appears would be a derivative work.

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