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The ‘Tom Cruise syndrome’ and 50 Shades of Grey

The ‘Tom Cruise syndrome’ and 50 Shades of Grey

A couple of days back, I read a story about how Universal Studios, the production company behind the 50 Shades of Grey movie, is suing Smash Studios, a pornographic film production house, because the latter released a porno ripping off the book.

I’m a lawyer so the legal basis of Universal’s claim piqued my interest. Im not familiar with the work of Smash Studios since my X-rated consumption is limited to Vivid Video, Wicked Pictures and a bit of Naughty America on the side. However, the spoofing and direct (grossly sexualized) imitation of popular works of mainstream fiction are a common ploy utilized by the porn industry, as any casual patron of adult movies would attest to. I’ve never heard of a lawsuit being brought against the various pornos that have parodied popular movies and books. Whether its adult films with titles that explicitly reference famous movies and books (e.g. “Good Will Humping”, “Riding Ms Daisy”, “A Beautiful Behind”, “A Clockwork Orgy”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Breast”) or those with content directly lifted from story lines and characters featured in mainstream works, this is not a new development. Its almost an industry norm.

So, does Universal actually have a case for copyright infringement against Smash Pictures? The logical basis for this being a frivolous claim is pretty obvious — porn is regarded as the lowest form of creativity and, hence, a porno based on 50 Shades of Grey cannot be taken seriously as a legitimate adaptation of the book, or at least an adaptation comparable to that of a regular production company like Universal. How many people were really that surprised when the news broke that the cringe-inducingly terrible “Innocence of Muslims” film which caused the Muslim word to shit itself was actually directed by an adult film-maker? Adult movies cannot be weighed on the same scale as normal movies – apples and oranges.

A copyright lawsuit of this type would make more sense if, for example, Universal got wind of the fact that New Line Studios were working on a treatment of 50 Shades, that too without securing the rights for it. In that case, Universal would have every reason to bring the legal action mentioned above. But against a porn company? An industry known for brazenly ripping off everything popular under the sun just so they can incorporate bukkake in them? What gives?

My take on this is as follows: Universal’s actions and behavior are best explained by the “Tom Cruise syndrome” brought on by the release of a porn movie based on 50 Shades of Grey.

Tom Cruise is one of my favorite actors. He can pull off a frat-boy jock flying around in a jet-plane in the same breath as playing a cold, calculating assassin. He’s a versatile and charismatic leading man.

And he may also be gay.

Allegations about his possibly homosexuality freak the hell out of Cruise and have dogged him throughout his fine career. Whether he feels that it may undermine his leading man status or somehow discredit and humiliate his already lampooned faith, Tom Cruise is conspicuously and inordinately  defensive about comments, questions and stories directed towards his sexual orientation. Any other actor might handle such allegations with poise, if not complete indifference. However, Tom Cruise probably is gay. And maybe that’s why he gets so super-defensive and combative when confronted by those allegations – they’re too close to the bone. Thus, his behavior ends up indirectly affirming the very allegations he attempts to deny.

In the same way Tom Cruise gets way too sensitive about comments directed towards his sexuality (because it hits too close to home and he may in fact have something to hide), I think Universal are taking preemptive action against the porno because they are acutely aware that the erotic content of 50 Shades of Grey leans more towards the raunchy and crude than its author and marketing vehicle would care to admit (never read the book so this is totally based on criticisms and some of the more explicit passages I have read). There may be an underlying fear that a porno about the content of the book may just expose how low-brow and smutty 50 Shades of Grey actually is and how it’s not the creative and respectable work of art it’s legions of fans and followers insist it is. If a porno exposes the book as being vulgar and trashy by illustrating how easily conducive to porn the content is, it’d be a major blow to the franchise or at least it’s reputation, perhaps injuring future box office receipts. So that’s what I mean when I say that Universal’s law suit is triggered by the Tom Cruise syndrome. It’s an implicit acknowledgment that the book really is just the sort of unsophisticated hardcore erotica that porn movies put themselves out to be.

I asked my friend, famed intellectual property lawyer Ali Kabir, whether Universal has a case against Smash Pictures and this is what he had to say:

“Under most copyright laws, including American, the unlicensed, fair use of copyrighted materials is permitted. There are a bunch of things that fall under fair use, and one of the major fair uses is “parody.” You can parody copyrighted materials without having to pay for them, which is why you see movies like Scary Movie, as well as the countless porn parodies. I’m guessing Universal’s main argument would be that this doesn’t qualify as parody as it is too similar to the original piece of work, that you can’t parody erotica with porn as the subject matters are indistinguishable.

So yeah, they have a case, but only if they admit that the original work is trashy erotic literature.”

While Kabir’s take on this issue didn’t have enough porno case-studies for my liking, his general point is the same though he reaches it through an alternate course of reasoning. Universal would only have a case against Smash Pictures if the former accept that 50 Shades of Grey is trashy, crude and sexually gratuitous enough to be comparable to an average porn movie.

So, yeah, basically 50 Shades of Grey is raunchy, smutty filth. But maybe you didn’t need a 1000 words from me to establish that.

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