Copyrighting our Dreams

Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman among other wonderful stories that make Jungians giddy with excitement, posted a link to this blog post yesterday that considers the significance of some elements in The Kindly Ones from the Sandman. The author, Matthew Cheney, concludes his post with this observation:

People have made the case that television and movies and comic books are our contemporary myths, that popular mass culture provides our societies with the sort of sustenance provided to ancient societies by their stories. I am not experienced enough with myths and legends, either themselves or their histories, to venture an opinion on whether this is so, but certainly we cannot deny the effect of all the various media on our imaginations. From childhood on, we dream through Bugs Bunny and Harry Potter, we visit the shrine of Disneyworld, we chronicle the legendary exploits of celebrities through tabloids and TMZ.

Neil Gaiman is especially aware of this, as not only The Sandman but many of his writings, especially American Gods, show. What becomes of old gods, old beliefs, old myths? Where do they go when no-one is left to believe in them, when they are forgotten?

I’m not sure if that’s the direction The Sandman is taking, but its mélange of comic book culture and thousands of years of human belief and storytelling implies the question.

What happens when all our dreams get copyrighted? When belief is little more than an accumulation of Twitter stats? Should Dream get a Facebook page?

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, then you know that I fully agree with the first part of this observation. Popular culture is the transmission of cultural mythology, and has been since the dawn of history. An important distinction, however, should be made here: “popular culture” has come to refer to the aspects of culture that are popular or embody the post-modernist pop style, but “popular culture” has long meant the aspects of culture that are distinct from either the culture of the elite (“high culture”) or religious bodies (“sacred culture”). I also contend that since ancient cultures did not distinguish between these aspects of culture, it is an error to treat their mythologies as more sacred, real or correct than today’s popular culture. I’m not going to spend my time arguing that the separation of culture is a product of our history, blah blah blah, but I would argue that we in America have swung the cultural pendulum into the popular realm, not to diminish the high or sacred culture, but to emphasize that a large portion of American myth is now transmitted through popular culture. To understand what is going on with our cultural mythos, one only needs to turn on the television (which reflects what Cheney was discussing in his post).

He concludes with that fabulously juicy question: “What happens when all our dreams get copyrighted?” In the context of his post, “dream” has a double meaning, since the Sandman centers around Dream, or the “god” of dream. (One of my post-doc blog projects is to blog my way through the Sandman; the stories are so rich!)

Anyway, this question is a valid question to ask. With the boom of the Internet, fan culture has gone in new, creative directions. Fan culture has long been influenced by popular culture, but the Internet revealed that those who write fan fiction or produce fan art are not alone, creating a community of people who are in copyright violation. Some companies have tired to shut down fan expressions, whereas some have reached a compromise seeing the fan community as potential free marketing (which worked well for Harry Potter).

I haven’t surveyed people about their dreams, but I have chatted with fans. That the myths of popular culture are so potent that people feel the need to create their own versions of it (iconography) suggests that they are speaking to some unconscious level, likely tapping into the stuff that dreams are made of. Indeed, I can testify to having Disney dreams when I sleep at night, and feeling a strong connection to the Disney mythos when I am awake – this is how dreams work. I do wonder what happens when our dream imagery is tied so firmly with established stories (I call them “prefabricated mythologies”). Given the number of regurgitated story motifs, I’d say that there is some creative stagnation, but then I wonder if this is part of the transition and the dying of the old ways.

I understand and respect copyright laws. They protect the interests of the company and/or the artist, but these laws also entitle these entities to a certain amount of control over the people. In the apocalyptic scenario, copyrighted dreams will eventually lead to the shut-down of creativity, which also leads to the shut-down of the people. I doubt it will go that direction, because human nature is human nature, and humans are inherently creative.