Wednesday 19 July 2017

Who owns the robot?

Guest post by Michael Hoskin, Calgarian friend to the club

Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou is one of the greatest films of the silent era and perhaps the first truly great science fiction film.

The film’s robot is the most widely-circulated image of the film, despite its brief appearance in robotic form. Despite this — from All-Star Squadron’s Mekanique to Star Wars’ C-3PO — the Metropolis robot has endured as an icon.

Yet in its time, the world’s nascent science fiction community did not entirely appreciate the film. H.
Instantly recognizable, the robot from
Metropolis has influenced generations
of Science Fiction movie designers.
(Image via )  
G. Wells wrote a blistering review of the picture for the New York Times, opening by stating: “I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.” I encourage you to seek out Wells’ review – not simply to witness one of the medium’s great masters behaving curmudgeonly, but to consider the matter he raises concerning intellectual property.

In the review, Wells objected to Metropolis’ robot on the grounds that robots were the invention of Karel Čapek, playwright of R.U.R. (1920). Wells wrote: “Rotwang, the inventor, is making a Robot, apparently without any license from Capek, the original patentee.”

Some would perhaps argue the concept of a robot goes back much earlier than 1920, pointing to various ‘mechanical men.’ Other scholars point to the robot being a direct descendant of the Jewish lore about Golems or Hephaestus’ golden women in Greek myth.

Wells admitted Čapek owed at least a little to Frankenstein: “Čapek’s Robots have been lifted without apology, and that soulless mechanical monster of Mary Shelley's, who has fathered so many German inventions, breeds once more in this confusion.”

In certain corners of the world there are arguments being made about intellectual property, particularly where copyright is concerned. Due in part to vigorous lawmaking on behalf of the Walt Disney Company, the period in which it takes before a work enters the public domain seems to grow larger and larger.

Even the Killbots from Chopping Mall
owe a debt to Karel Capek's R.U.R.
(Image via
One argument is that copyright enables property to be properly curated; as counterpoint, Mike Masnick argued in Do Bad Things Happen When Works Enter the Public Domain? The Data Says... No that copyright was actually working to prevent the circulation of ideas rather than encourage it.

The argument of copyright versus public domain is too large to delve into here, but as a thought experiment, let us consider what Wells had to say about Metropolis. Suppose Karel Čapek were the only person permitted to tell stories about robots. What would science fiction look like today were that the case? Do not presume to tell me it is an unreasonable idea – using a Harlan Ellison concept without crediting him will net you one angry lawsuit. If you wrote a story containing ‘transporters,’ ‘phasers,’ and ‘photon torpedoes,’ Paramount would take you to court. Write a story wherein your energy weapon is called a ‘lightsaber’ and the House of Mouse will send you a zip-a-dee-do-deposition.

Would Metropolis still have worked without the robot? Suppose the antagonists had simply surgically altered an agent to resemble Maria rather than a robot doing the work – how would it have changed the story?

Without the robot, whither the android? The cyborg? The cyberpunk? Would we be bereft of Robby the Robot? No wisecracking droids in Star Wars? Would Isaac Asimov have died penniless in an alley? Would life be worth living without Heartbeeps? Has science fiction not flourished from the lack of provincialism surrounding ideas in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.? And if this is so, where else has the genre benefited from the free trade of concepts?

1 comment:

  1. Of course The Steam Man of The Prairies was much earlier than R.U.R. If Čapek controlled the concept of Robots, it would still be fair game to write about anything as similar as a "steam man," probably mechanical men, maybe androids.