Last year, an ultra rare copy of filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune book went up for auction. Jodorowsky put the book together as a way to pitch his creative vision for a big screen Dune adaptation, complete with some cool depictions from legendary French scifi artist Moebius. That movie never came together, but fans of Frank Herbert’s novel have salivated over the blueprint ever since. The book was expected to fetch a cool $30,000 – $40,000 on auction, so people were flabbergasted when it went for about $3 million. But apparently there was a reason it fetched a shockingly high price. An online group known as TheSpiceDAO thought it would give them the rights to make their own Dune movie.
To understand what’s going on here, we unfortunately have to discuss cryptocurrency a little, because that’s TheSpiceDAO’s whole thing. They’re one of several groups pooling tons of crypto to make big purchases and adapt them for a speculative future in which crypto reigns supreme. DAO stands for Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, and these groups have attempted to purchase everything from Blockbuster to the U.S. Constitution in an attempt to NFT-ify it. What the sets TheSpiceDAO apart is that apparently there was an idea that owning Jodorowsky’s pitch book meant they owned Dune, period.
Over the weekend, the group tweeted their plans. “1. Make the book public (to the extent permitted by law) 2. Produce an original animated limited series inspired by the book and sell it to a streaming service 3. Support derivative projects from the community.”
The first goal there is possible although, as others have noted, not exactly novel — much of the book has already been loaded into the public sphere on online. But the next two goals — to produce and distribute an animated series and support other creative spinoffs — would require having legal ownership of Dune, and owning a book doesn’t transfer rights to you, no matter how much you paid for it. Jodorowsky’s Dune is still an adaptation of Herbert’s novel, and that novel was recently the subject of a big budget movie you may have heard about. Warner Bros. isn’t going to give TheSpiceDAO rights to the sequel just because they bought a book.
As Gizmodo notes, TheSpiceDAO has acknowledged this on other formats, posting that instead of directly adapting Jodorowsky’s book, they might use the book to create projects loosely inspired by the pitch. “Jodorowsky’s expansive vision for Dune in some way planted the seeds for nearly every Sci-Fi project over the last 50 years,” they wrote on their Medium page. “While we do not own the IP to Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, we are uniquely positioned with the opportunity to create our own addition to the genre as an homage to the giants who came before us.”
That would at least be legal, provided TheSpiceDAO could navigate the many competing legal claims of Jodorowsky, Moebius, Herbert and Warner Bros without infringing on anyone’s copyright. The problem, you don’t need to own Jodorowsky’s book to make an original series. Things can be inspired by other things without shelling out millions. George Lucas freely admitted that Dune heavily influenced Star Wars, but he didn’t need to own any fancy pitch book to write the script for A New Hope.
There is a cynical read here, which is that TheSpiceDAO knows all this, but also sees an opportunity here to relieve some Dune fans of their money through Dune-themed cryptocurrency situation. But then again, maybe this is just an inevitable part of a speculative currency. Fear isn’t the only mind-killer out there. Not by a long shot.
On a lighter note, a documentary about Jodorwsky’s ill-fated plans for Dune movie is available, and it’s hard to imagine any adaptation of his idea being more entertaining than the doc itself.