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The legal properties of film

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This article focuses on the manner in which the law of copyright in the UK has made sense of a particular cultural artifact – film – in the process of figuring it as an object in which property rights can subsist. It traces the history of legislative and judicial attempts to circumscribe the boundaries around this object, noting that two approaches have emerged and now co-exist: a 'physicalist' approach which treats a film as co-extensive with its recording on some medium; and a 'formalist' approach which treats a film as an expressive form exceeding this physical manifestation. It explains why each approach is reductive and impoverished when considered in relation to how films are figured as aesthetic objects; and concludes that a modified version of the available Marxist explanations of film copyright reveals the latter's understandings of film to be closely articulated with the purposes and values of the mainstream film industry. More generally, it suggests that a reappraisal of Marxist theory may be timely at this juncture, not least because it draws attention to law's role in exemplifying the entwinement of culture and economy at a number of levels.

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