Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities
2005—2006 Forum on Word and Image
Assistant Professor, English and Cinema Studies
How the U.S. Supreme Court Invented Film
Throughout the history of film copyright, the law has done much to establish and protect film as a distinct medium. It has controlled the status of film authorship, and it has set limits on the kinds of films that can be made. Expanding upon the research in his first book, Hollywood and the Cultural Elite: How the Movies Became American, Prof. Decherney is now investigating the history of film copyright.
Dr. Decherney is examining a series of court decisions, stretching from 1903 to 2005, that have defined (or will define) film as a distinct medium in law, and as a result, in American culture. For example, in responding to the murky relation between film, literature, and theater in the silent film adaptation of Ben Hur, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made film liable for copyright infringement, inadvertently transforming both the kinds of stories Hollywood told and the style filmmakers used to tell them. Court definitions of media have always driven those media in unpredictable directions, but Dr. Decherney argues that the history of the Court's theorization of word and image helps to explain later decisions that accompanied the advent of video and the Internet.