How “The Lego Movie” is Really About Copyright

This weekend I finally got around to watching The Lego Movie. My watching it was long overdue, I was a Lego fanatic as a kid, and the movie had been recommended to me countless times since its release. Of course I loved it, it’s a really good movie. The kids love it because it’s a kids movie, the adults love it because of it’s social commentary on corporate conformist culture, but to me the movie is really about the issues of copyright and how it controls our culture.

The premise of the film is that the antagonist, Lord Business, wants every Lego piece to be in its proper place, in accordance with the provided Lego instructions. To his mind the Lego universe should be divided into realms (the city land of Bricksburg, the Old West, Pirates Cove, Vikings Landing etc.) with barriers between each realm so that each piece stays within its proper realm. The hero of the film, Emmett, works with a team of Master Builders who specialize in using their creativity to combine pieces from different realms to create powerful new creations to combat Lord Business. At their home base, Cloud Cuckoo Land, there are no rules and characters from all realms mingle peacefully together in an environment made from a mishmash of different pieces from across the universe. Of course this all happens underground, hidden from Lord Business, who’s army of minions known as “micro managers” would disassemble the world and return each piece to it’s proper realm it they had the chance.

In one of my favorite scene’s (see above) Emmett addresses a council of master builders in Cloud Cuckoo Land that includes, Batman, Superman, Shaquille O’Neal, Gandalf, Milhouse, Robin Hood, Wonder Woman, Abraham Lincoln, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Michelangelo, Dumbledore and others. The meeting between all of these disparate characters is what makes the scene, and the movie as a whole, so funny. Some of the movie’s funniest moments are when Dumbledore is arguing with Gandalf, or when Batman cons Hans Solo and his Millennium Falcon crew. The idea of this motley crew fighting the evil corporate overlord, who sees only ugly chaos in their ways, lies at the heart of the movie. The master builders with their creative mashups are the good guys, while corporate interests that wish to overreach and dictate how each piece can or cannot be used are the bad guys.

Turn now to our modern society. Youtube artists are widely celebrated in our culture, but corporate interests often take down their videos, or dictate their videos’ uses, using the power of our current copyright law. Online musical and video mashups exist only in so far as large media companies allow them to, or exist to the extent that creators and fans evade the law through the use of technology. Many pieces of our culture can only legally be used with corporate permission, and corporate permission is never given for uses that they see as frivolous or out of step with their corporate message. Remix artists are our master builders, and large media companies are our Lord Business. Some of the most exciting and innovative areas of art and culture have been pushed underground to avoid being shut down by “micro managers” who don’t think art or culture should be done that way. Which is why it is so amazing that the Lego Movie exists in the first place.

“The Lego Movie” Movie

Ironically the same copyright issues that the Lego Movie discusses apply to the movie itself. In a mind bending layered-ness, the same system of control imposed Lord Business, is what the Lego Movie creators had to navigate to make their movie in the first place. With one major difference. While the master builders built the creations they dreamed up and worked to destroy the system of control, the Lego Movie creators went around begging for corporate permission and crafted their movie in accordance with the wishes of the large media owners. To be clear the Lego Movie was only able to be made because of the existing friendly relationship between Lego and their corporate partners. Lego has a unique monopoly on this type of mashup movie because it’s likely that no other filmmaker could convince such a wide array of companies to lend her/him the rights to their characters.

This exactly what Lego Movie Director Chris Miller meant in a recent interview with I Am Rogue when he said, in regards to the Lego Movie’s diverse characters,

…it was something you could only do in a Lego movie
-Miller

Miller goes on to comment on the legal hoops they had to jump through to be able to include many of the characters…

…behind the scenes it was a total legal challenge
-Miller

This seemed especially to be the case when it came to super heroes in the movie. When asked about why no Marvel comic book characters appeared Miller said…

…a lot of legal wrangling. They’re estates and properties that have a lot of rights holders and everyone has to sign off on things.
-Miller

And in the case of Superman, Director Phil Lord notes…

Superman was a big part of the movie then he was completely out of the movie… We couldn’t have Superman in the movie for like a year and then suddenly all the legal stuff got figured out and he was back in. But we had to come up with a more sideline story for him…
-Lorde

When asked if it was difficult to get permission to use Star Wars Legos in the movie. Miller responded…

We’re not really allowed to talk about that…
-Miller

All of these legal fights and corporate deals were to make the movie appear organic in the way that real world children (and adults) play with Lego.

We wanted the movie to feel like it was written by an eight-year old and it was from the mind of a child. Like the way a lot of kids, my son included, when they’re building Legos they put Batman, Chewbacca and a cowboy all in the same spaceship together. It seemed like it was really fun.
-Miller

In order to create a mainstream movie that attempted to mimic the way our own actual culture and imaginations work, a powerful brand like Lego had to negotiate with media conglomerates, and only use characters in ways that were allowed. Why is it that we have to ask permission to make a movie that depicts our own cultural icons? Why are we allowed to play creatively with Lego, but not allowed to share our Lego imaginations with others through stories or video? Why will The Lego Movie probably be the only movie I ever see in theaters that includes two of my favorite wizards, Gandalf and Dumbledore? The answer to all of these questions is our copyright law. Lobbied and amended over the years it has become of tool of “micro-managing” our culture, of telling creators what they can and cannot build. However, like Emmet and his fellow master builders we can rise up and fight this system. We can choose limit ourselves only by our imagination and not by what the Lord Business’s of our world dictate.

Notes:

I am currently re-reading Lawrence Lessig’s “Free Culture” which discusses the increasing influence copyright law has on controling how our culture is produced. It is a great, easily accessible book that I would highly recommend reading to gain a big picture understanding of the issue of copyright and culture.

Also, technically many of the issue’s raised in the post above are trademark issues, not copyright. But I chose to use the word copyright to encompass both types of intellectual property.

Batman in Star Wars

  • ulf

    just saw the movie and a quick view on imdb and googeling “the lego movie depicts the internet” pretty much only showed me this page. it cant be that ppl dont see the connection?! i have a hard time seeing that the director(s) accidently mirrored the internet. i thought the movie was so-so, but the message and packaging was uber!

  • JLH

    You nailed it.

  • whiz Illiam

    Copyright laws should stay as they are or get stricter,
    lifting them is the worse idea you could have if you want more creative media. People
    already say Hollywood is running out of ideas and get pissed when someone decides
    to remake an old movie. If there was no copyright there would be a flood of
    remakes.

    No movie studio would say no to making their own reimagining
    (RIPOFF) of Star Wars or Batman or Captain America. These franchises have
    firmly established fanbases and it would be easy as hell to make money off of
    them. Guaranteed asses in the seats.

    But with everyone who can make a big budget Star Wars film
    making one, Star Wars will quickly lose all continuity. There would be no Star
    Wars, that entire fictional universe would just become a concept. Darth Vader
    and Han Solo would become like Dracula and Frankenstein, almost stock character
    in a way.

    And what about the movies that turn out to be crap? With big IPs like Batman out there for any
    greedy studio to profit off of, who will make sure the movies are good, or
    loyal to the characters? People get upset at the slightest change in a
    characters’ backstory or design (like TMNT being aliens), how will people feel
    when Batman is a space alien and turns out to be Superman’s long lost brother? That’s
    a reimagining too, and without DC or Warner Bros. to be the gatekeeper for
    Batman who is stopping Paramount form doing that?

    And it’s also stealing. Even if the creator is dead, a
    person buys a Batman comic to see Batman, not to read whatever shitty
    fanfiction you wrote. If you are using an already established IP and not you
    own original character/world/setting, whatever, to profit, you are stealing. And
    if there is an already established writer wants to write a Batman story, I’m
    sure DC comics will oblige.

    The Copyright laws
    ensure MORE creativity and LESS lazy story telling.

    • gregman4

      Hi whiz,

      Thanks for reading my post.

      It sounds like your main argument is, without copyright, there would be a ton of shitty unofficial remakes. I agree that less maximalist copyright law would grow what is now called ‘fan fiction’ into something larger.

      What are your thoughts about fan fiction as it stands now? Are fan created stories, images, videos, destroying the official properties that they are ripping off?

      Again, I agree that the market would be flooded with all sorts of unofficial knockoffs/remakes, but I don’t think these remakes would destroy the value of the original. Plus, I think there is a good chance that some of these knockoffs would be even better than the original.