Comic Artist Dylan Horrocks Explains How Copyright Is Too Often Used To Kill Culture
from the death-by-a-thousand-cuts dept
Andrew Dubber points us to a wonderful essay from New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks (who, it should be noted, recently claimed that some stuff here on Techdirt was “very stupid”) highlighting how New Zealand’s government (and content creators) shouldn’t be too quick to rush into expanding copyright law following the vision presented by the US entertainment industry. The whole thing is worth reading (seriously — go read it), but I’ll just highlight a few key points. First, he covers the well-chronicled history of Superman, and how DC Comics totally screwed over Superman’s creators. But, even more importantly, they used that same copyright to block a competing (and, for a time, more successful) superhero, Captain Marvel:
Superman’s popularity led to a boom in ‘superhero’ comics, with dozens of new characters introduced by every publisher in the business. One in particular, the red-costumed Captain Marvel (created by C C Beck and Bill Parker for Fawcett Comics), became so popular it eventually overtook even Superman in sales. Captain Marvel was witty and clever, with distinctive and playful art, and helped push the young American comics industry to new heights of quality and sophistication. But National, searching for a way to crush its biggest competitor, sued Fawcett for copyright infringement.
The case dragged on for years before Fawcett finally gave up, settling out of court and promising to shut down the Captain Marvel line. Many comics fans remember the end of Captain Marvel as the day their favourite hero was finally slain — not by alien invaders or supernatural powers — but by copyright lawyers. Looking back today, National’s lawsuit looks weak indeed. But in the battle between Superman and Captain Marvel, the better comic lost.
He also talks about other cases, such as one involving Disney shutting down an underground comic — while at the same time screwing over its own internal cartoonists. And another, about how the organization that holds the copyright for Tarzan in the US, which is in the public domain in New Zealand, threatened a NZ author for writing a book that included Tarzan. Even though the author had a strong case (hello, public domain!), just fighting it in court was too expensive. The pattern he lays out is clear: how copyright is so frequently abused to allow corporations to actually harm content creators, rather than help them.
The key point he makes at the end is worth repeating. The entire concept of copyright is based on this idea that you can actually own culture — but as has been discussed plenty of times in the past, culture is about a shared experience. And these two points are very much in conflict. It is difficult to share an experience when someone else claims ownership of it:
When we’re honest, most writers will admit that our work is not entirely ours. We don’t invent our stories out of nothing. The truth is, we make them out of what’s come before and what surrounds us every day: the world we live in, people we know, stories we’ve read and images we’ve seen. We swim in a deep ocean of culture, and in a very real sense, everything we make is made from that vast, shared sea. We are part of it, just as we are part of the world in which we live. If we treat that ecosystem as nothing more than raw materials to be torn up, exploited and sold in the marketplace, then sooner or later the whole system will fall apart. And if we draw water from the shared ocean — as all writers do — we must also learn to give something back. The relationship between a writer and their work is vitally important and must be respected. But we must also respect the countless other relationships that form around our stories and ideas: those who read them, share them and respond by making something new.
If only those who made policy actually recognized this concept.