The Vexed Question Of Authorship

The nature of collaborative work means that the originator might not always be the creator.

The death of Monty Norman – forever to be known as ‘the man who wrote the James Bond theme’ – this week reminds us once again that the question of authorship, or who should be listed as the ‘creator’ of something, is not always all that straightforward – especially in collaborative media.

We know Norman is the man who wrote the James Bond theme because he went to court – twice – to assert that fact against claims to the contrary, and won both cases. The defeated claims would have you believe that John Barry actually wrote the theme music but that makes no objective sense, because Norman composed the entire score for Dr No. No one actually seems to be arguing about that. But John Barry long claimed to be the man behind the Bond theme. You might wonder why a composer as successful and respected as Barry – by any estimation more successful and respected than Norman, who was not exactly a one-hit-wonder but who never came close to the career that Barry had – would want to make a fraudulent claim about this particular piece of music. We should never underestimate ego – while Barry wrote the music for numerous Bond themes, it perhaps rankled that the most famous piece of music in the franchise belonged to someone else. But equally, we could just as equally argue that Barry had a legitimate claim to authorship.

Here are the facts, essentially undisputed: Monty Norman came up with the piece of music known as The James Bond Theme. He wrote the notes in their basic order – the “dum di-di dum dum”, as he described it. However, the producers were dissatisfied with his arrangement of the music, which lacked the required punch. John Barry was brought in to give the theme a more dynamic sound, laced with jazz and big band bombast. It is his blaring arrangement that we recognise as The James Bond Theme and this arrangement is not just a louder, faster version of the theme – it features musical additions and tweaks added by Barry. So who, really, is the person responsible for the piece of music that everyone knows? There’s an argument for saying that Barry’s version of the Bond theme samples Norman’s version but is an original piece of music in its own right – part cover version, part remix. Or, more to the point – Norman wrote the music but Barry created it.

This all reminds me of Terry Nation and the Daleks. Ask almost anyone and they’ll tell you that Nation was the creator of the Daleks. But there are those who disagree. This again comes down to questions about who is actually responsible for a cultural icon that had various people working on it. Nation unquestionably wrote the Doctor Who story that first introduced the Daleks. But by all accounts, Nation’s description of the Daleks was vague, essentially saying that they should be robotic and glide rather than walk, but otherwise being short on description. Understandably so: TV screenwriters on deadlines rarely had the time to go into specific detail or provide visual guides, especially where production budgets are tight and the flights of fancy that writers might have may be quickly whittled away by what can be afforded. Nevertheless, the Dalek design was by Raymond Cusick and the robotic voices were supplied by Peter Hawkins and David Graham, electronically processed by Brian Hodgson at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Now, when you think of the Daleks, what comes to mind? I’d argue that the visual design comes first, the voices second and the actual story – which is long lost in the mists of time (and space), remembered only by fans of a certain age or the people who own the DVD – third. Everyone knows what the Daleks look and sound like, but few have actually seen the story that introduced them. Who, therefore, is the creator: the writer or the designer? The sensible answer seems to be ‘both’, but no one ever seems satisfied by that. For both Nation and Norman, a lot of money and – more importantly perhaps –  a great deal of personal pride depended on being seen as the sole creator.

None of this is intended to denigrate the achievements of either man, both of whom have legitimate claims of being the creative force behind their respective achievements. But these are just two of countless problematic cases where trying to pin down just who is the prime creative force and who isn’t proves difficult. We can see this in the constant arguments between supporters of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (or Steve Ditko) or numerous other comic book characters where there is a debate as to what is more important – the writing or the artwork (and where egos dictate that shared credit is often impossible). The one thing that we can guarantee is that the history of many collaborative works will vary wildly depending on who is telling it – and the teller will almost always claim to have been the most important part of the team, the one who ‘came up with the idea’. But is the first person involved the most important? The Creator or the originator? It’s a difficult – perhaps impossible – question, even if court decisions have tended to judge them as the former.

DAVID FLINT

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2 comments

  1. The existential problem here is the notion that it’s possible to assign the ideas in someone’s head as property.
    The practical issue when trying to enforce this is that no creative endeavour is solely the work of one person – even if you design and build a chair, selecting and harvesting the raw materials etc by yourself, who came up with the idea of resting your weight on your posterior?
    Then it becomes an utter minefield when it’s an undeniably collaborative process. Should actors be given creative credits for taking black and white words on a page and injecting life into them? If you don’t think so, mark the difference between an inexperienced performer reading an unfamiliar script against a top class professional wise worked for weeks on it.
    I find it pretty galling that the likes of Damien Hirst, or Steve Jobs employ a team of highly skilled individuals to produce an item, and they go down in history as if they had toiled diligently in isolation, shorn of all prior expertise, to deliver said product (and get remunerated as such)

  2. I remember seeing a competion on some early 90s breakfast show when the question was “Who created the Daleks?” They wanted Terry Nation as the answer, but most of the entries said Davros (understandably), and Jon Pertwee, doing the draw, felt compelled to stick up for Raymond Cusick! Think they eventually got Nation as the answer on the fifth draw!

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