Long before the “Special Editions” of the Star Wars trilogy littered George Lucas’s blockbuster franchise with computer-generated lounge singers and haunted fans with the question of "Who shot first?," the director appeared before a United States Senate subcommittee to warn Washington—and, in the process, the public at large—about the dangers of altering classic films.
Lucas and his directorial fraternity brother, Steven Spielberg, were in Washington in March of 1988 to push the country toward adopting the Berne Convention, which protects a work’s copyright across all the countries that participate in the agreement (there were 76 at the time), and defends an artist against having his or her work defaced or altered after it’s completed. This last part was of special concern to Lucas, and was the main driving force behind his trip to D.C.
The film industry’s renewed effort for copyright reform was born in opposition to the colorization and forced editing that classic films were enduring on television. This was highlighted by Ted Turner’s recent acquisition of classic film libraries, such as MGM and United Artists. Though it was seen as sacrilege among film historians, Turner sought to maximize his $1.2 billion investment in MGM by bringing the mostly black-and-white films into the modern age through colorization.
"The last time I checked, I owned the films that we're in the process of colorizing," Turner said in 1986. "I can do whatever I want with them, and if they're going to be shown on television, they're going to be in color."
The “moral rights” of the Berne Convention state that the artist “shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any derogatory action in relation to the said work which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation." When Lucas stepped in front of the committee, he urged Washington to bring those rights to the United States.
“People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians,” he said. “[And] if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society.”
Lucas even took a thinly veiled shot at Turner directly, saying, "There is nothing to stop American films, records, books, and paintings from being sold to a foreign entity or an egocentric gangster who would change our cultural heritage to suit his personal taste."
Lucas also had a prescient warning about the growing dangers of digital effects that could completely alter the content of classic movies: “[More] advanced technology will be able to replace actors with ‘fresher faces,’ or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor's lips to match.”
The efforts of Lucas and Spielberg helped push the U.S. to adopt the Berne Convention the next year, but the country took a much narrower view of the "moral rights" aspect of the agreement [PDF], ignoring many of the director's most important points. The entire speech can be read over at Save Star Wars, but his point is clear: To Lucas, the alteration of classic films is akin to the destruction of culture and an act of barbarism. Of course, this was 1988—a mere nine years before the release of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition, which saw the addition of new characters, special effects, and entire scenes to the original films.
Since that time, Lucas has added numerous other changes to the first three Star Wars movies, with the last round of alterations coming in 2011, right before the director sold the franchise to Disney. To this day, the original versions of the first three Star Wars movies have not made their way to Blu-ray or any sort of legal digital download.
Though Lucas’s impassioned speech may seem hypocritical to some, his focus at the time was aimed at protecting artists from having their work changed without their permission. As the director himself, and the copyright holder of Star Wars, Lucas’s alterations fall well within an artist’s “moral rights.” Well, from a certain point of view.