IT’S TIME TO BRUSH OFF those CliffsNotes.When the Supreme Court rules today on Eldred vs. Ashcroft — a case challenging the constitutionality of the 1998 Sonny Bono Act, which extended copyright by 20 years — it could send a stack of literary classics, including “The Great Gatsby” and “A Farewell to Arms,” into the public domain. That means development execs hoping to sidestep a costly Hollywood book market would, virtually overnight, gain access to a wealth of free source material with a built-in audience. These books are no sure thing. Some have been adapted before with mixed results (over the years, at least eight films have been produced from “Gatsby” and “Arms” combined, not all of them successful). But scores of previously unadapted books and stories from such writers as H.G. Wells, Edith Wharton, George Orwell, Theodore Dreiser, Ford Maddox Ford, Rudyard Kipling, Sinclair Lewis and Virginia Woolf — all under copyright under the Sonny Bono Act — would be up for grabs. A TREND TOWARD public-domain material is taking shape in Hollywood. Among the growing ranks of new and recent productions based on uncopyrighted source material are “The Time Machine” from DreamWorks, “Vanity Fair” at Universal Focus, “Around the World in 80 Days” at Walden Media and “Troy” at Warner Bros., based on that quintessential public-domain book, “The Iliad.” Uncopyrighted books from the literary canon are appealing for a number of reasons:
- There’s no upfront development cost. As one book rep puts it, “If a studio could avoid paying $4 million for a book with an enduring audience, it would be manna from heaven.”
- They give development execs a rare opportunity to put their college degrees to good use.
- Most significant, in an age of merchandise-driven tentpoles, they’re pre-branded star vehicles that hold the seeds of franchises that can be cross-marketed from classrooms to malls and multiplexes.
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