Topic: Sports & Entertainment

A "Crash" Course in Ethics

It’s not generally known, but one cannot copyright a title of a book, movie, song or play. As a result, an artist’s decision whether to use a title associated with another artist’s work is a matter of professional courtesy and respect, not law. It is also often a matter of common sense: while one could call a new novel “Moby-Dick” or an original film “Star Wars,” it would be probably not be a good idea. It seemed to work for Canadian film-maker Paul Haggis, however: he took the name of his film from a 1996 movie by David Cronenberg, director of this year’s “The History of Violence.” Cronenberg’s film won a prize at the Cannes film festival that year. Its title?


Yes, 2006’s Academy Award for Best Film went to another “Crash,” and Cronenberg is upset about it, as well he should be. Given the loophole for titles in copyright law, writers have to depend on…you guessed it…ethics to retain their original work’s identity. Thus no screenwriter has decided to name a movie about a tragic acting instructor “Stage Coach.” That one is forever put aside as a John Ford Western classic, or the remakes of it. Any bio-flick about a musician or composer could be called “The Sound of Music,” but Rodgers and Hammerstein earned the right to keep that one. “The Dirty Dozen” could have legally been called “Twelve Angry Men,” but that would have been wrong. Even when a movie has a generic title like “Love Story,” if it was a hit the Golden Rule dictates that the screenwriter of a new romantic film needs to find something that hasn’t been claimed yet. If Cronenberg’s “Crash” (which is, unlike its doppelganger, actually about a car crash) had been a straight-to-cable dud, then Haggis’s appropriation of the title would have been fair enough. But the first “Crash” was excellent, and deserved to be respected. Now it will forever be over-shadowed by an Oscar winner.

There’s no reason not to respect this unwritten rule of writer etiquette; it isn’t as if there aren’t always plenty of good title options waiting to be tried out for the very first time. “The whole Crash thing has been very annoying,” Cronenberg has said. ” I’ve let Haggis know that as well. It’s not a legal issue, it’s an ethical issue. And also I think it’s just plain stupid.” If it is any solace to David Cronenberg, whose most popular and famous film had the same name as another because it was a remake of “The Fly,” the Ethics Scoreboard agrees.

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