Friday, January 9, 2009

An Oldy But Goody: Copyright & Fireworks

The following is from a response I made to a listserv (remember those?) over ten years ago. I got to thinking about the subject again yesterday after The Colbert Report made a reference to a fireworks display I worked on a long time ago.

    From: Kenneth L. Kunkle XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
    Date: Tue, 06 Oct 1998 22:59:52 -0500

    I regret that I have not been looking at the list for a few days, as this is a topic I may be able to shed some light on.

    For background, prior to entering law school I was employed by a firework display firm with my primary responsibility being in the area of... you guessed it... choreography and design of large scale displays set to music (referred to as pyromusicals).

    It was standard for all of our work to be submitted to the copyright office for registration and to my knowledge they were always accepted. There is a great deal of work that goes into choreographed displays, timing colors, patterns, rhythm, intensity, placement, sound and so on are all factors that are put into artistic displays. In other words, a great deal of expression is put into the work. This information can then be put into a variety of script forms (for computer or electric push buttons) for the display to be fired by technicians in the field in a manner that is choreographed to the pre-selected music. As a result designers develop reputations and styles. Some companies develop unique combinations of songs to specific types of fireworks. Indeed, there are competitions for displays all over the world.

    As for some of the comments made so far.

    Can a display be fixed? Yes... a script is written containing information regarding when and what is fired. This can be analogized to both the computer script and the ballet.

    Is a display repeatable? Absolutely! the show you see in NY may be also used in FL. Or it may be repeated every night of a state fair. The best example is Disney (the nations largest consumer of fireworks) which has developed elaborate firing systems to place the shells (a.k.a. bombs) EXACTLY in the same place each night.

    Will the copyright office take a registration for this? Yup.

    Now does this mean that every display on the 4th is copyrightable? I doubt it. In reality the bulk of displays are done in an impromptu manner by hand shooters with only basic planning going into pacing, which is usually dictated by a safety factor of how fast can they be fired without causing injury, while dragging it out long enough that the customer feels they got a good show. However, a great deal of planning can go into a choreographed display. An example of the difference is: shooting 100 salutes (the loud ones) at the end of God Bless America is pretty standard fair, but firing 20 shells custom made to fit into a two minute song fired from multiple locations and scheduled to explode at precise moments during assorted crescendos while keeping in mind how it will look from a 3 mile radius from street level to the tops of buildings probably is.

    As for the notice that started this thread... I've never heard of a company trying to enforce their rights like this, however, it seems to me that if a photographer takes a photo that exploits the designs of a "designed" display (e.g. shell placement, color, etc) the designer should have a right to compensation. Additionally, if a designer has an original way of expressing something (e.g. a new way to choreograph a song) it seems to me that other companies shouldn't be able to come along and copy it. There is no reason why a display should be treated any different that a song, ballet, or painting. While choreography is the easiest thing analogize this to, in fact the art of display design is similar to musical creation, sculptural works (you must design a display in 3 dimensions to be seen from all angles), a painting (often the colors hanging in the sky in patterns or combination is the intent of the design), or a dance (rhythm, placement, and pacing).

    As a side note I should mention that some shell builders have also attempted to copyright the designs of their shells. This is particularly true of pattern shells (i.e. shells that explode and display a pattern such as a heart, star, fish, or a letter of the alphabet).



As time has passed since then, and I am no longer involved with these displays, I note that I have changed my position on this a bit. While I maintain that the display is clearly subject to copyright, it is highly likely that most photographs of a display would incorporate a fair use appropriation of the display and would not infringe.

Kinda fun looking through old posts though.

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