A few years back I went to see Lawrence Lessig and Jeff Tweedy debate the idea of remixes/mashes/samples and it was moderated by Wired Magazine’s Steven Johnson. It may be one of my penultimate moments as a digital media, wilco fanatic, and nerd all at once. Wilco had just gotten sued for the sample inside “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”….It was one of the best discussions on creativity, influence and inspiration I’ve ever attended. Worth at least what one might learn in an entire semester in an art class at college. Truly. If someone had told me when I was 16 I’d be sitting inside the New York Public Library listeneing to a lawyer and one of my favorite songwriters talk about sampling…well…you know…yeah right.
And THIS is why I love Jonathan Lethem. I’ve been a Lethem fan since Fortress of Solitude. I feel connt\ected to his path in that we have lived in the same cities and pats of the country and he writes about neighborhoods I’ve lived in – and my true conversion as a complete and utter junkie came when I read The Disappointment Artist. It’s rare that you read a memoir and then want to go back and read every book that the author wrote…but I did. To learn that Lethem ran the Philip K Dick fan club? His obsession with Star Wars? Music…it all made sense why I had been following him.
He recently took up head of the department post at Pomona college….i hadn’t visited his blog in a while. Am in the finishing chapters of Chronic City. And then…then I saw the below. And once more I thought. Damn I love Jonathan Lethem. This is a writer who is SO modern in his process, in his voice and here we see in his attitude. I love the collaborative process, love that he is “throwin it out there to those that want to participate” – it’s just so refreshing to see someone BEING intellectual with their PROPERTY rather than trying to hoarde it.
You get what you Give. And Lethem’s Giving ALOT. Read this man’s books. They are fantastic. I swear.
Image by Tony Fitzpatrick
THE PROMISCUOUS MATERIALS PROJECT
A couple of years ago, after writing a piece for Harper’s called “The Ecstasy of Influence”, I decided to start giving away some of my stories to filmmakers or dramatists to adapt. (I also write some song lyrics and invited musicians to help themselves to those.) You can see some of the results here. The project continues, and anyone should feel free to leap in. The stories are available non-exclusively — meaning other people may be working from the same material — and the cost is a dollar apiece.
There’s a simple written agreement to sign, imposing a couple of minor restrictions. That’s it — once you’ve paid your dollar and signed the agreement, you’re free to adapt or mutate the story as you please, for whatever purpose, whimsical, commercial or otherwise.
Frequently Asked Questions
I like art that comes from other art, and I like seeing my stories adapted into other forms. My writing has always been strongly sourced in other voices, and I’m a fan of adaptations, apropriations, collage, and sampling.
I recently explored some of these ideas in an essay for Harper’s Magazine. As I researched that essay I came more and more to believe that artists should ideally find ways to make material free and available for reuse. This project is a (first) attempt to make my own art practice reflect that belief.
Some of the Project’s stories are available here on-line, others can be found in my books. In either case, I’m assuming they’ll have more readers as a result of this project, and I like that, too.
Are all your stories available?
No, just the stories listed here. The rest I’m keeping, for the time being, for more controlled and exclusive uses.
Which rights are you giving away, and which are you keeping?
I should emphasize that these texts themselves may not be copied in any medium, or reproduced in anthologies or websites (except of course for fair-use excerpts). My publishers are the only ones I’ve allowed to do that, and the health of my partnership with them frees me to continue writing new novels and stories, so don’t monkey with it, thanks.
What I’m offering is the right to adapt these stories into stage plays and films.
What are the ‘few restrictions’?
The first is that I’d ask that films be held to the length of half an hour or less, keeping them firmly in the category of ‘short’. Similarly, I’d ask that playwrights keep to a ‘one-act’, or forty-five minute, limit.
For the most part, I’ve offered material that seems proportionate to shorter work. Though if someone wants to propose an exception, I’ll consider it.
Neither playwrights nor screenwriters should publish any adaptations of these stories in book form. Anything like that would put me in breach of my agreement with my publisher. The goal is to let short films and plays happen, not to create rival texts.
And of course, I’d ask always to receive credit as the writer of the source material.
Are there other artists doing things like this who were sources of inspiration to you?
Yes, lots. A couple of examples: playright Charles Mee’s (re)making project. David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush of Ghosts download/remix/share site. The web is also full of great examples of appropriated and reused cultural materials of all kinds, some of it created with permission, some not.
Though there’s nothing “digital” about The Promiscuous Materials Project (apart from the fact that you’re probably learning about it on the internet), it’s probably safe to say that it tends to be digital music and web-based-art (and aesthetic theory) which is pointing the way in this area, while those (like me) working in more traditional forms come around more slowly.
Why not call them ‘Open Source Stories’, or put them under a Creative Commons license?
I like the comparison to Open Source projects. But that description has mostly covered software, and the terms of most Open Source agreements are slightly different than mine. It could be misleading to use that name.
As for Creative Commons, I’m a fan. I’m strongly influenced, in this effort, by Lawrence Lessig’s writings. But my own plan had some specific contours which didn’t fit any of the Creative Commons licenses. So I invented my own type of agreement with other artists.
What if someone makes money from adapting one of your stories?
Great. Most short films and small theater pieces don’t make money. By offering these stories cost-free, I’m alleviating just the first of the financial hurdles an adapter is likely to face. If someone working from one of these stories does find distribution or other support that brings financial reward, I’m delighted, as I would be for any artist. For me, while I’m happy to make money from partnerships elsewhere, The Promiscuous Stories aren’t about that.
Are these just stories you figured nobody wanted? Why presume anyone cares to adapt them?
Of the sixty or seventy stories I’ve written, only a handful have ever been optioned by filmmakers (and at this point, just two have been filmed). None has ever been adapted for the stage. Many inquiries have come over the years, but often from younger artists easily discouraged by the cost of hiring a lawyer to negotiate exclusive rights, even when those rights are being made available inexpensively. I want to make material easily available to precisely such folks.
Some of The Promiscuous Stories have never received any inquiries, others have gotten several. One of them, “The Spray” has been the most-requested story I’ve published. In fact, it was the urge to allow more than one filmmaker to make a version of “The Spray” that partly inspired this project.
Anyway, I’m not pushing the material on anyone, only making it available.
It’s worth adding that I don’t believe there’s anything unusual about an artist giving away some permissions, more or less as I’m doing. Many writers occasionally agree to allow some underfunded filmmaker or theater director to adapt their work on the basis of a minimal option (often a dollar). Even if the contract promises a larger purchase price down the line, this future payment is usually a remote prospect. For me, the urge simply to free another artist to make an adaptation has often been much stronger than any concern over getting paid.
Will you add or subtract from The Promiscuous Stories?
If this goes well, I’ll probably add stories eventually. Since this is an experiment, I might also withdraw the whole thing if it leads to confusion or abuse. Or, if a problem emerges, I may adjust the terms somewhat. What I won’t do, as a matter of principle, is reverse myself and sell this material for exclusive use.
Are you interested in seeing the results? Do you want to collaborate with other artists on these projects?
I’m eager to see the results – who wouldn’t be? (Though if this project takes on any scope I may find myself hard-pressed to respond in detail.) But I’m not seeking to collaborate with other artists on these projects, no. My preference is to relinquish creative control of the material, in favor of seeing what someone else might do with it.
Isn’t it strange to have multiple films derived from the same source floating around simultaneously? What if they were exhibited side-by-side, say, at the same festival?
Yes, strange – but, for me, strange in a good way. And perhaps not much stranger than having multiple ‘cover’ versions of the same song recorded by different artists. I think it could be wonderful to see several adaptations from the same material exhibited together.
In fact, a few independent film producers and DVD distributors have expressed some interest in gathering the results, when and if they’re substantial enough to make such a gathering interesting.
You wouldn’t ever do such a thing with one of your novels, would you?
One of the instigating factors for this project was my being approached simultaneously by a film director and a theater director for the adaptation rights to The Fortress of Solitude. I wanted to say yes to both.
Ordinarily, this is seen as impossible: when a writer sells or options a book to a filmmaker or film studio, the theatrical rights are bundled in the package (along, with things like television rights, sequel motion picture rights, and theme park rights).
I decided to ignore precedent and find a way to allow both projects to move forward simultaneously. As of now, both are. (It may be that either the filmmaker or the theatrical director will find themselves hamstrung by some unimaginative investor’s requirement that all rights be controlled. I hope not. We’ll see.)
Most feature-length films are massive collaborative undertakings, requiring long preparation and loads of money. It probably wouldn’t be practical to deny a filmmaker exclusive feature-film rights: the risk of someone else adapting the same material would likely destroy any hope of gathering the collaborators and investors needed to begin a feature. For that reason I doubt I’ll be offering a Promiscuous Novel anytime soon. But I do have something different in mind for my next novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Watch this space.
What about the Promiscuous Songs page? What’s that about?
Why don’t you go there and have a look?
Did anyone really ask these ‘frequently asked questions’, or did you just make them up yourself?
If you’ve selected a story and you’d like to make an agreement, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org