Brand managers, writers, recording artists, and directors could learn a thing or two from painters and illustrators. During my time as a comic book illustrator, I had to learn how to let go. Part of it was a consequence of having a deadline–you just can’t spend forever messing around with a piece to make it ‘perfect.’ You have to finish up the best you can and then move on.But painters take things a step further. When the painting is done, they sell the original, and it is gone. Forever. The artist has no control over how the painting will be displayed or used. There are untold number of masterpieces that have not been seen by human eyes for decades, sitting in the back of some rich asshole’s air-conditioned bank vault.
Here’s the thing: Art is participatory. It’s a conversation, not a speech. When one half of that conversation isn’t cooperative, or have their own personal agenda, as in the rich collector example above, the conversation goes nowhere–ending in darkness and silence. However, particularly in pop culture or art, even when consumption is a primary goal of the creators (i.e. reaching a large audience in order to make a lot of money), this is not the case–people want to be entertained, or enthralled, or moved. A bit of movie memorabilia may become valuable, but mostly because of the lasting emotional impact of the story. Art has the power to touch people, and affect them on a deep, emotional level, and this is something we need to be mindful of. The emotional reaction is just as much a part of the art as the original piece, it’s what gives it meaning, life.
The Balance Between IP Rights and The Rights of the Fans
This is a tough issue… and it isn’t. Creators have a right to protect their creations from other people who would rob them of the ability to profit from their work through piracy, bootlegging, or plagiarism. This is a no-brainer. However, some studios and the RIAA have gone too far. Just look at the problems Youtube creators are having with fair use1. It’s crazy. And HINT: Pursuing legal action against people who are not a threat to your business, or who are just showing appreciation for your work degrades your brand equity, and when that bank account hits zero, ain’t no one going to feel sorry for you. So spend that capital wisely. We’ve all heard the stories of grandmothers being sued, so I won’t go there. But here are three examples of where a little flexibility could have benefited the artists.
The first example is the late 70’s sit-com, WKRP in Cincinnati. The show was about the struggles of a small AM radio station making the transition to rock ’n’ roll. As a result, they played a lot of contemporary (for the time) rock. One of those songs, Blondie’s Heart of Glass gained exposure because of the show… so much so that the record label gave their gold record to the show. You can see it displayed in the bullpen from season 2 onward. But you know what you won’t have on the show? The song. All of the music was removed from the show because it would have been cost prohibitive to have re-licensed everything for the DVD release. As a result, much of the charm and timeliness of the show was lost. A real pity.
Another example is Saturday Night Live on Hulu. The very early seasons still have the musical guests intact, so you can see wonderful performances by the likes of George Harrison, Paul Simon, and Phoebe Snow… not only preserving some really great, unique performances, but exposing the artists to a whole new generation of potential fans. In later seasons, the music is gone, as are every skit the artist performed in. Were the IP rights holders for SNL being cheap, or was HULU not paying enough to be able to get the music? If you have the answer, post it in the comments below.
The third example is third-party covers of songs. Whether it is by a late-night talk-show band, or someone putting a random Youtube video up. I just watched a video of Becky Brown* where she’s only able to show about a second of her playing the piano due to usage rights issues. She’s not a professional musician trying to sell an MP3, she was just someone trying to share her love for a particular piece of music… How could showing more of the song have hurt the artist? For all the RIAA knew, I might have bought the original song if I liked it–because guess what? When someone I like likes something, I’m more likely to like it. That’s a lot of liking, and it’s not just me. But it definitely won’t happen because I don’t know what the song was… exactly who benefits here?
I understand… if there are sales being made on DVD or through redistribution, the artists should get something out of it. But the thing is, people are buying those DVDs or watching those shows for something other than a specific song. By demanding too much money… or even any money when the margins are very small (as in the case of WKRP or Youtube creators), rather than considering the value of the exposure their artist will get, I believe they are actually hurting more than they are helping–especially with older acts that haven’t been in the public eye in some time. Good job, RIAA.
Who Owns That Song?
The person(s) who wrote the song, of course. But. Any song, or work of art, only matters if it touches people. If fans find emotional meaning. They are the ones who give the song value, and it is the fans that will keep those songs relevant. Without the fans, and new generations of fans, taking emotional ownership of a song, it will go away… and will become a footnote in music history. If that. Just look at my previous article about the Beatles for an example. Who remembers The Singing Nun’s Dominique? But people are still listening to Can’t Buy Me Love, or Yesterday, and will be for the next 50 years. It sure isn’t the RIAA that’s making that happen.
Okay. Here’s another example of song ownership, from the mouth of Eddie Vedder. I heard him tell this story during a concert at Key Arena several years ago. Fortunately that story has been recorded and put on Youtube without RIAA approval, so that you can hear it as well. For the time being. The story was about the song Alive and how it was was a curse. However, audiences read a different meaning into the lyrics, and as a result, the meaning changed for Vedder. It’s a moving story and one well worth listening to. It demonstrates the conversational nature of art, and the transformative power it has. This can’t happen if you hold on too tightly, or don’t give fans the freedom to express themselves.
Brand vs Fan
I’ve touched on the importance of brand in a previous article, but there is a point where you have to put aside the ego and let go. No business produces product only for their own consumption… well, no business that intends on being profitable… but there are some
companies whose brand is so important that they put limitations on how the purchaser can use the product. Sometimes this takes the form of EULAs that will invalidate your warranty if you ‘jailbreak’ your phone, or in the case of Ferrari, how you decorate your car.
Perhaps you’ve seen Meadmau5’s (former) Ferrari 458, nicknamed, “The Purrari?” He had the car skinned in Nyan Cat livery. After receiving a ‘cease and desist’ from Ferrari, he decided instead to replace it with a Lamborghini Huracan. All I can say is, good for him. Firstly, I fail to see how a silly skin would harm Ferrari’s image, second, the gall it takes to tell someone that they can’t do what they want when they’ve paid you a quarter of a million dollars. How is a silly color scheme more damaging, than say, this?
Done Right: Star Wars
For all the stick George Lucas has gotten over the years, the one thing he has done right is how he allowed fans to play in his sandbox, making films, forming clubs and promoting their work.
This is truly amazing, given how Star Wars was the first film to make the full-court press of movie-toys-comic-books-merch. Where just about every other IP holder gets all crazy protective, he pretty much said, “Go for it.” And you know what? None of that fan fic, film, or art, has in any way diminished the brand or harmed sales. If anything, it’s increased the loyalty and involvement of the fans. When you feel like you’re a part of something, you have a vested interest in its success.
Done Wrong: Paramount/CBS v Axanar
After the failure of Star Trek: Nemesis, and the (premature) cancellation of Enterprise, it seemed like the franchise had finally run out of steam. Well, that was the industry impression… the opinion of studio hacks that lack imagination. However, James Cawley and other intrepid fans knew better. It’s not so much that they kept interest alive–Star Trek fans have a long history of keeping things going –but demonstrated that there still existed a large, vibrant fan base, particularly for the original Trek characters. Trekkies (or Trekkers, depending on preference) saved Star Trek from the dustbin not once, but twice. Something the producers of 2009’s Star Trek reboot acknowledged by giving Cawley a cameo. However, with the franchise given new life, and the prospects of a new series on the horizon, CBS/Paramount’s
greed self-interest took over and decided to reward some of those loyal fans with a lawsuit. The irony of such a lawsuit is not lost on real fans of Trek, with its ideals of intellectual and creative freedom and altruism. Despite Due to the efforts of J.J. Abrams and Justin Lin, the lawsuit was eventually dropped is still proceeding, but the damage is done. How it will affect the upcoming, subscription-only Trek series, only time will tell. I suggest fans write in the CBS/Paramount and threaten to boycott the new series unless they drop the draconian guidelines they set down for fan-produced films. Write. As in real letters. Trust me, kids, it still carries more punch than an email or online petition. Need help? Fine. I’ve composed a letter2 in the footnotes you can use.
Infinite diversity in infinite combination.
I like to reiterate that I strongly believe in the rights of the IP holder to protect their interests from others looking to financially benefit from that property. I also think that releasing a clear set of guidelines regarding usage and funding is both helpful and necessary… I just happen to think that Paramount/CBS went too far. What is most unfortunate in this case is the fact that the producers of Axanar and Paramount/CBS were unable to sit down and come to a reasonable arrangement. With the resulting lawsuit, I really don’t see how anyone wins.
All right, from some feedback I’ve been getting, it appears I still haven’t made my position clear enough. So I am going to make an extreme example of Axanar.
Let’s just say that the creators of Axanar raised so much money (and they did, over a million) that they were able to quit their jobs and pursue the fan film full time. And let’s just say that they decided to release the film only to the people who either “donated” or bought merchandise that utilized copyrighted artwork. They would clearly be in the wrong here, and absolutely should not be allowed to do so… without the proper licensing to do so… and it is fully within the IP rights holder’s prerogative to deny to sell those rights.
However. In this case, the production of this film would in no way harm Paramount/CBS’s ability to make money off of their product, nor would it detract from their brand. As shown with the de-canonization of tertiary Star Wars works, fans care very much about official works–much more than they do for any fan created works. A fan might like another fan’s idea more, but it will never, ever, replace the “real” thing. And as good as some fan films have been, even when using former Star Trek alumni, the acting and dialog are often deficient… sometimes laughably so (it really takes an experienced, professional director to get good performances out of some actors, and to know which takes to use).
I will give Paramount/CBS some small caveat here and say that they might lose some revenue if the people who donated to Axanar have a limited income, and therefore might not have the money to go see an official film in the theater, or pay for their upcoming show… but if that is the case, is getting that person’s last dime the thing they should be concerned about? Shouldn’t the fact that they’re so poor that they can’t afford to go see a movie be slightly more important? Isn’t that more in line with the entire Star Trek philosophy rather than suing a group of creative individuals so that the company can make those last few dollars of disposable income? No, of course not. Because that’s not what corporations do. Corporations are there to make money. Not solve income inequality, and for that matter, not to protect the artist, but to insure their own revenue stream and to maximize profits for the next quarter.
As a writer and artist myself, my primary concern is the protection of the artist. The people who are actually creating the actual work that people pay to see, or read, or display in their homes. No one goes to a movie because it was made by Paramount, or Fox, or buys a book because it was published by Penguin. You may expect a certainly level of quality from a particular studio or imprint, but you spend your money for the ideas, for the work of the artists. Protecting the corporations that make that work possible is important, as they do take a financial risk in promoting the work of artists.
But the fact is that corporations, in general, do not protect the artist or act in a way that is in the artist’s best interest. Historically, corporations have gotten the best possible deal for themselves, paying the least amount of money possible to the artists and creators who (until now, with the advent of Youtube, Etsy and other outlets) had few ways with which to distribute and monetize their work, and usually stripping them of any legal claim to their work. Some creators have been very savvy and managed to sign lucrative contracts, but they are the exception, rather than the rule.
I get it. They’re adults and not children. If they sign away their rights, then tough. Artists don’t think like lawyers, or businesspeople, so does that entitle corporations to exploit them? There are so many examples of artist exploitation that it would take a whole series of articles to discuss them. And more than that, corporations regularly take and use artists’ IP and use it without consent, payment, credit, or even a thank-you. Just look at the latest example of X-Men: Apocalypse and the use of Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork for Dazzler that was used to promote the film at SDCC.
I am not pointing this out to say that one wrong justifies another. I am pointing this out to show the hypocritical nature in which corporations treat IP rights. They have the money and power to sue, and artists seldom have the time or resources to fight back (Harlan Ellison being one of the few, rather curmudgeonly exceptions).
I do not think that corporations are evil, but to think that they fight for the moral high ground is laughable, or that they protect artists (unless they have a financial stake in it) is patently wrong. Large corporations don’t need any protection and certainly don’t deserve any pity. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Done Wrong: Star Wars Theatrical Cuts
And now George gets some more stick… for refusing to release the theatrical versions of the original trilogy in high definition. I get it. Artist. Wants to keep fiddling. Make it perfect. But this is one of those decisions that makes no sense to me. If fans want it, just release the damn thing and take the extra money. It would make the fans happy and it doesn’t detract from the new additions to the work. And let us not forget how vocal Lucas was about film preservation in the 80s. Ah well. BTW, I agree with Lucas on the reason for Greedo shooting first3 (how about that for trolling fans?). There is talk that fans will eventually get what they want, but we’ll see.
Done Wrong: MGM Stargate Franchise
Stargate SG-1 is one of my favorites shows. Unfortunately, it has been off air for quite some time. There has been talk about a new movie reboot or continuation by the original film makers… which would completely ignore the three television series. Whatever the case, nothing is on the immediate horizon. Unlike Lucasfilm/Disney or Paramount/CBS (much as I disagree with their current guidelines), MGM has chosen to forbid any fan produced films. That is, of course, their prerogative.
But you know the old saying, out of sight, out of mind. Five years ago, there was strong Stargate SG-1/Atlantis fan representation at Emerald City Comicon, with costumes ranging from Wraiths to standard offworld uniforms. In fact, Stargate cosplay fans used to be one of the five or six major cosplay groups with a specific schedule mentioned in the convention program. However, I have seen the numbers gradually decrease over the years. I could usually count on seeing a few familiar die-hard fans, but not this year. And keep in mind that this is Seattle, sister city to the spiritual “home” of the series in Vancouver BC. The cosplay websites that I frequent have little to no activity in the Stargate section any more.
So if MGM’s goal was to kill the fanbase for the franchise, mission accomplished. Well done!
Side Note: Fans
The last few years, we’ve seen some lash-back against the fans. Whether it’s Simon Pegg telling fans to “f*** off,” or Paul Feig dealing with online hate, or George R.R. Martin and impatient fans. It is these sorts of examples that remind us that fan is short for fanatic. Some fans are more… fanatical… than others. If you don’t want to deal with it, then do something else, or develop thicker skin. Sometimes it’s appropriate to tell fans off (Martin), and sometimes not so much (Pegg), and sometimes it’s understandable but maybe not prudent (Feig).
In the case of Martin, he is the creator, and as such (at the risk of sounding like an Objectivist) really doesn’t owe his fan base more than what he’s already giving them. He doesn’t owe it to them to become a faster writer, or to write exactly what they want him to write. He does owe it to himself and to them, to produce the best, most honest work he can.
Pegg, as an interpreter of a work that has a significant history has, at best, equal ownership of that legacy as the fans… and probably less than some. As an artist, he certainly has a right to defend his work, but it has to be leavened with humility… and as a comic actor, I was surprised his skin wasn’t a bit thicker… and I have to say, comes off as bit of a hypocrite.
And yes. Some fans can be total assholes; the kind that if your work doesn’t fix the exact image they have in their head, they’ll get all bent out of shape about it. And vocal. Oh so vocal. But remember, they are so passionate, because this is something they love. And love can be pretty damn irrational. Never forget that. This type of fan may be indistinguishable from a troll, but the same advice applies. DON’T FEED THE TROLLS. It’s a little shocking in this day and age to have to say that, but evidently, some people haven’t gotten that memo yet. Paul.
But fans can also be a tremendous ally. Look at the example of David Weber. His Honor Harrington series (The “Honorverse”) is such a rich, massively complicated world, that his fans have actually helped Weber with continuity and have built an incredible community for new and old fans alike. The love definitely flows both ways. When you have these sorts of passionate people in your corner, why not take advantage of it? As I said before, with a greater sense of ownership, comes a greater commitment to your success. Everyone wins. Take note, Paramount, CBS.
So be mindful, when working on a pre-existing property, keep a cool head, educate yourself, embrace the fans, and do the best work you can do… and that’s all you can do.
Learn to let go. It applies to children, love, and art. Maintain enough ego so that you have the confidence to do the best work you can, but never lose sight of how important the fans are. Ultimately, what benefits them will benefit you in the long run.
*If you suffer from anxiety as I sometimes do, I highly recommend you check out her videos and subscribe. She discusses her issues with honesty and a courage that I find inspirational. Keep up the good work, kid.
8/2/16 ADDENDUM 2
Colbert for the win.
2. Here you go:
I am writing this letter to express my distress and disappointment in the decision to sue the creators of the fan film, Prelude to Axanar, and the fan film guidelines that followed.
While I agree that Paramount/CBS has the need and every right to protect its intellectual property against unfair usage, I believe the steps the studio have taken are needlessly punitive and restrictive toward the very fans responsible for the continued viability of Star Trek as a franchise.
Despite the new fans created by the reboot Star Trek series, it is the long-term fans that keep Gene Roddenberry’s vision and ideals of the future alive. Over the last 50 years, Star Trek has inspired multiple generations to think, dream, create, and achieve great things. You do not own the optimism, hope, or the cultural and racial diversity that Star Trek stands for. By penalizing and limiting creativity, your actions run contrary to this vision of the future.
Star Trek fans have shown time and again organizational and creative power, first in saving the original Star Trek from cancellation, and again by keeping the spirit alive through fan productions after the studios had given up. And unless Paramount/CBS revises the draconian fan film guidelines, we will show this strength again by going after the only thing you seem to understand–money–by boycotting the upcoming series Star Trek Discovery. But I sincerely hope it does not come to this.
It is in the spirit of fairness and cooperation that we implore you to do the right thing, and recognize that a multitude of voices will not weaken your brand but can only strengthen it. There is enough room in the Star Trek universe for an infinite variety of creative expression, so please act in a way worthy of Gene’s legacy.
Live Long and Prosper,
3. But not for actually having Greedo shoot first. I get the reasoning… in all the old westerns, it was always the bad guy drawing and shooting first, the good guy was always just a bit faster on the draw. It had to do with the entire concept of fairness. I mean, when you know you’re faster than someone, to draw first is just murder. The problem with how the scene is blocked out, is that Greedo already has his gun drawn, but a drawn gun does not mean he’s going to shoot. The second problem is that it isn’t 100% obvious from the dialog that Greedo is about to shoot. If he’d said something stupid like, “Now you die, Solo!” it would be different. Lucas could easily have solved the moral dilemma by creating a new insert shot of a close-up of Greedo raising his gun, which would be an obvious prelude to shooting (who would shoot with the gun resting on the table top anyhow?), and then cut back to Solo blasting him. Problem solved. Solo still looks like a badass without looking like a murderous heel. Though I don’t think anyone doubted that Greedo was about to murder Han. All right. The scene should be left alone.