I first learned the basics of copyright while in film school. I’m not a lawyer, and my knowledge of the subject is by no means comprehensive, but I do understand the reasoning behind the laws that govern intellectual property.
Recently, I stumbled onto a crowd-funding campaign where an artist was attempting to fund a series of illustrations of famous (copyrighted) fictional characters, all owned by a giant corporation. When this company warned the artist he was in breach of copyright, many of the campaign’s supporters were furious and thought the law was just the stupidest thing ever and that the company should just piss off.
Although I too think the suckiness factor of vertically integrated companies is often high, I must admit, I was scratching my head at the anarchistic tone of some of the comments about this company’s right to defend the intellectual property it owns.
So it got me thinking… what if these fans got what they wanted?
Yeah, what if we made it perfectly legal for:
- Illustrators to draw and sell characters copyrighted by others?
- Writers to create stories in copyrighted worlds?
Well, first off, let me acknowledge that the intellectual property laws are far from perfect. There are undoubtedly aspects that could be refined to better fit the realities of the 21st Century, such as the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), or the fact that companies can actually patent living things!
All that said, from the perspective of someone who writes fictional material, copyright protection may be the single largest asset society bestows upon creative individuals who want to make a living with their work.
Do big corporations benefit from copyright protection just as much as individuals?
Is that a bad thing?
It’s not that I think corporations should be granted the same scope of rights as individuals. Don’t even get me started on the recent 2010 Supreme Court ruling that said corporations are allowed to contribute money to political campaigns in federal elections as though they were people!
But I do believe that giving individuals and companies the same access to copyright protection is the only way creators of entertainment and art might have a small (very small) chance of supporting themselves through their endeavors.
Well, for one, any rational individual who is talented/lucky enough to see their creations start making money should strongly consider limiting their liability exposure. And that means – wait for it – setting up an LLC or Corporation.
Because it protects individuals from losing their personal assets – their car, home, savings… everything – if their venture ultimately goes tits-up, for whatever reason.
But that is far from the most compelling reason to honor copyright protection to individuals and companies alike.
Think of it this way – if we went the ”Dude, just make everything free for anyone to use however they want!” model, that not only means that Batman and Star Wars fans would be officially allowed to make and sell their own stuff set in those worlds, it would mean that the owners of the Batman and Star Wars franchises would be able to do the same with your material as well!
Let’s take the web cartoonist, Howard Tayler, and his long-running webcomic Schlock Mercenary. I’m a fan of the comic, respect Mr. Tayler as a storyteller, and am amazed at the amount of effort he’s put into turning his creation into a successful business. And I’m sure it wasn’t an easy road. I’m guessing his success was the result of: tons of hard work refining his craft, a patient spouse, lots of talent, good timing and luck.
So, rainbows and kittens for Schlock.
What if copyright didn’t exist?
What if any fan could make a t-shirt/book/toy/whatever featuring their favorite fictional characters and sell them?
“Harry Potter 8: Harry Potter and the Secret of the Mid-Life Crisis”?
Or perhaps a Spiderman-My Little Pony crossover?
Best idea ever.
I mean, what’s the harm, right?
Well, in this alternate world, Mr. Tayler would potentially be competing against every t-shirt manufacturer, every video and board game publisher, every animation studio, and every other comic producer to sell stuff themed and branded with Schlock Mercenary. Every single aspect of his material – material for which he alone took all upfront risk creating and nurturing – could be exploited by someone who took zero risk.
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem too fair to me.
The way I see it, you can thank copyright law for the vast majority of the modern entertainment you love, because, honestly, does anyone really believe that in a copyright-free world, that the best-of-the-best would dedicate their work-lives to creating unprotectable, free material?
How many of your favorite stories would never have been told in the first place?
And here’s the real kicker…
It wouldn’t be the likes of me or some other schmo successfully exploiting the work of others. Oh, no. We’d all be hopelessly outmatched by the powers that would mobilize to process and package every piece of profit potential from anything and everything in sight, as us small creators watched, helpless, as the dizzying economies of scale were unleashed, unchecked and unstoppable.
So who would run the show?
Marvel (i.e. Disney)… or D.C. (i.e. Warner Bros)… or [enter name of large entertainment conglomerate here].
So, here’s my message to any fans of… well… anything… who get bent out of shape when soulless companies prevent others from making money off their intellectual property…
Ensuring these companies have the right to defend their copyrights is the price that must be paid for the protection of our own material. These rights serve to nurture the delicate ecosystem that spawns fresh material from the minds of hopeful new storytellers like you and me every single day.
Copyright-haters who yearn for an anything-goes world wouldn’t be the liberators of their favorite stories and heroes, but oppressors – maiming or dooming every single independently created piece of art and entertainment. All material would ultimately come from the factories of industry or ultra-wealthy hobbyists, more than happy to work for free.
And it’s not like we need help to be pushed in that direction anyhow. We’re already like 80-90% there already. Just saying…