The Theft of Marsha P. Johnson

Over the past few weeks, it has come to light that a new documentary about the legendary transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson was made in a highly unethical fashion. The still-developing story about The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a sad one, and one which I think has clear overlap with academia. In fact, I think seeing this story through the lens of academic research further emphasizes the unethical behavior of the film’s director, David France.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, you can read a good article about it at Mother Jones. The broad strokes are that France relied on footage gathered and in some cases, found, by Reina Gosset, who had been gathering video footage and other materials about Johnson for years, partly with the intention of making her own documentary. France never credited or paid Gosset for any of this work. The fact that Gosset is a trans woman of color and France a cis white man only further highlights how messy this ordeal really is.

For his part, France claims that the materials on Gosset’s Vimeo and Tumblr pages were not really germane to his film, despite an assistant saying this material was, in fact, copied to hard drives belonging to the production:

“Furthermore, France admits that Gossett’s Vimeo channel, which consists of 19 videos, was one of several that his crew examined during the course of their filmmaking process and video from that channel may have appeared on their ledger to keep track of available footage. But he maintains that Gossett did not hold the copyright for the archival footage of Johnson that appeared on the channel and that it also appeared elsewhere. He says his team legally obtained permission from copyright holders for the footage that ultimately appeared in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.

I’m afraid that Kamran [the assistant] misunderstood the process of research and documentary filmmaking,” France tells Mother Jones. “The deeper question is: Did we learn anything from finding those videos on her Vimeo page? And that answer is no.”

France doesn’t deny using and incorporating the material into his larger research, he just claims he “learned nothing new.” If we take him at his word, this doesn’t technically amount to plagiarism, but it is an unethical theft of someone else’s hard work. When a scholar goes to an archive, for example, they dig through folders and boxes of material. They have to scan endless amounts of documents and photos, and make careful judgements about what is useful and what isn’t. When they write a paper or develop a project based on that research, they don’t own the copyright. That has to be credited to the archive, or the entity which owns the rights to that material. However, the research–the act of finding these documents, collecting them, sifting them, and prioritizing them–is their own work. It takes time, effort, and money to do this work. To take someone else’s efforts without credit, and then dodge complaints by saying “well they don’t own that stuff, anyway,” is a gross misunderstanding of the value of work and research.

This year, I spent two days in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. You can read about that here. If I were to post some of my PDFs from that research trip, or publish a blog with a comprehensive list of my findings, I would have to credit the Collection where I found them. I don’t own that material. But if a person came by and downloaded or copied what I posted here, and then incorporated all of that work into another project, without crediting me, that would be the same kind of unethical behavior David France is exhibiting here. It would be wrong.

Gosset found this footage; she labored to bring the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson to a larger audience. That labor needs to be at least acknowledged, if not outright compensated. Otherwise, France is nothing more than a cheap thief.

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