A few months ago, my wife and I watched an incredible film. It was Star Wars — the 1977 science fiction classic that we remember from VHS tapes in the late 1980s and early '90s and that older folks might remember from the big screen in the early '80s — except we watched it at Blu-ray quality on a high-definition television in the comfort of our own home. And when I say Star Wars I mean Star Wars, as in the title that appears on the screen is Star Wars, with no reference to "Episode IV" or "a New Hope," and not the 1997 special-edition recut full of random added CGI.
Rehashing the pros and cons of the changes George Lucas made to the film is, at this point, senseless. The key thing is that many of us remember a somewhat different film fondly. I, for one, greatly enjoyed seeing that film except without the compromises in image quality and screen size that were necessitated by the home video technology that was available when I was a kid. And now you can. Which is great news.
The only problem is getting and watching the movie is a crime.
The birth of the Despecialized Edition
Back in 1997, Star Wars was re-released on the big screen for its 20th anniversary. But rather than the original cut of the film, audiences got a "special edition" that added a couple of scenes, drastically altered one to suit Lucas's changed sense of what's morally appropriate for children, and inserted an awful lot of new CGI people and creatures into various shots seemingly just to prove that it was possible.
Anyone who wants to see a high-quality version of the original cut of the film faces a couple of hurdles. One is that Lucas has never taken steps to properly preserve or restore the original physical film reels. He's gone so far as refusing to allow the Library of Congress's National Film Registry to get its hands on a copy. Nor has he released a high-quality version for home viewing. A few people may have their hands on obsolete VHS or Laserdisc sets, of course, but that doesn't help. Back in 2006, Lucas released a DVD set that contained the original cut of Star Wars, but it's a low-quality transfer made back in 1993 for the Laserdisc, not a proper DVD release — to say nothing of a Blu-ray.
Enter a hero named Petr Harmy, who painstakingly created the cut I watched and calls it the "Despecialized Edition." You can see what he did here:
He made it by digitally combining elements of the 2011 special edition Blu-rays, the 2006 bonus DVD, a 2004 HDTV telecast, a scan of an old 35-millimeter print, and a handful of other sources. It took a lot of hard work, but thanks to Harmy's labor of love a really cool experience is now available.
But, again, watching it is a crime.
The shame of endless copyright
A lot of commentary on the subject of changes to Star Wars features a kind of over-the-top moralistic outrage at Lucas. But in truth, Lucas is under no obligation to share my taste in films. If he doesn't want to release a high-definition version of the film that originally screened, he's under no obligation to do that either. To each his own.
The ridiculous thing about the situation isn't that Lucas doesn't want to make the cut of the film that I want to watch. It's that it was illegal for Harmy to make it. And it was illegal for me to download it. And it would be illegal for me to make it available for download from Vox.com or even to put a link on this page that would let you go get it. It's illegal because of how Congress has over the years extended and expanded the scope of copyright law in ways that have become perverse and destructive to human culture.
Of course it would be difficult to have a thriving commercial culture if films like Star Wars didn't enjoy some copyright protection.
But how many years of exclusive right to profit off a hit film do creators need to make production worthwhile? Five? Ten? Fifteen? Thirty? I'm not sure exactly what the right answer is. But obviously Star Wars made more than enough money in its first three decades of existence to satisfy any sane human being. The additional decades of copyright protection it enjoys do nothing to create meaningful financial incentives for creators. Even worse, Congress has gotten in the habit of retroactively extending copyright terms, so that in practice nothing ever loses copyright protection anymore.
And this extends not just to protection from commercial competition, but to limits on utterly non-commercial undertakings, like Harmy's restoration effort.
Unfortunately, there's little sign that policymakers are interested in reconsidering the trend toward ever-more-restrictive limits on what people can do with old works of art. Instead, via the negotiations over a Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade the US is pushing for other countries to adopt misguided 50-or-more-year copyright terms. Defenders of these moves position themselves as the champions of culture and creation. But culture needs a balance, not a regime of ever greater restrictiveness.
Just watch Harmy's Star Wars cut and see for yourself. I promise I won't tell the FBI.