We discussed recently how George Lucas relinquished control of the Star Wars franchise, selling it to Disney. As Leigh noted in that piece, critics have long chastised Lucas for the control he exerted over his films, as well as the meddling he did on the classics so many hold dear. While that criticism is certainly valid, one area where Lucas seemed to be open -- in many ways bucking the Hollywood trend -- was with fan-made content, such as fan films and fan fiction. In fact, Lucasfilm to a great extent embraced fan fiction, even going so far as to hold contests for such content. The fact that Lucasfilm gained rights ownership of those fan-made films led to some criticism, but at least the company wasn't suing the jedi tunics off of its own fans.
These aren't the defendants you're looking for.
Image source: CC BY 2.0
But now some folks are wondering about the fate of all this fan-made content, and how future fan content will be received, now that the Empire Disney controls the franchise. Dennis S. writes in about a piece on this topic at Ars Technica, which reads less like a question about fan-made content and more like a propsective eulogy for it.
In 2007, Lucasfilm even released tools that would more easily enable remixing of Star Wars content. A top Lucasfilm lawyer, Jeffrey Ulin, began speaking at conferences and to the media about the value of fan mash-ups and remixes. Those works were "part of keeping the love of Star Wars and the franchise alive... We're really trying to position ourselves for the next 30 years," Ulin told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.
Certainly, Disney fans who make their own movie featuring Mickey Mouse are more likely to get a cease-and-desist letter from a Disney lawyer than an award. After all, it was Disney who famously lobbied Congress to extend copyright terms in 1998, so much so that some dubbed the new law the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Perhaps no single company more than Disney bears more responsibility for the sorry state of the US public domain, which hasn't seen any significant works added to it in decades. For the most part, culture after 1923 has been frozen in a state of private ownership—mostly owned by the large media corporations that began rising at about that time.
It's very difficult to argue with the precedent that the article lays out. Star Wars enjoys what may well be the biggest franchise fanbase ever. Part of that fanbase is so fanatical that they want to take part in the fun, sharing with one another their own creations and extensions of the Star Wars story. Many believe it's this same enthusiasm that has built up the Star Wars brand to such an amazing degree, but Disney's history suggests these contributions may no longer be welcome.
Frankly, that may pose a bigger problem than one would imagine. Obviously the Star Wars brand is big enough at this point that whatever content Disney releases is likely to be a hit...but will it grow as fast as it could if Mickey Mouse goes all emperor over the people? There's a serious risk in alienating folks over this kind of thing. Star Wars fans aren't stupid. There's a reason there's been a fair amount of hand-wringing over the sale of the franchise to Disney, seemingly much moreso than other sales like Marvel. This is a community that likes to contribute their own work to the story. I would say that such contributions are integral to the fanbase. If Disney acts to block that kind of thing, as they have in the past, the fans may well rebel against the Empire Disney and its Senate boardroom.
Disney surprised everyone today by announcing that they've struck a deal to acquire Lucasfilm—famously 100% owned by George Lucas—and all its valuable film properties. Lucas himself is stepping aside, and Lucasfilm Co-Chairman Kathleen Kennedy will become president of the company under Disney.
As if all this wasn't enough of a shock for Star Wars fans, Disney has also announced that they will revive Lucas' abandoned plans for Episode 7 and aim for release in 2015. One can't help finding some irony in the statement from Lucas:
“For the past 35 years, one of my greatest pleasures has been to see Star Wars passed from one generation to the next,” said George Lucas, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Lucasfilm. “It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers. I’ve always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime. I’m confident that with Lucasfilm under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, and having a new home within the Disney organization, Star Wars will certainly live on and flourish for many generations to come. Disney’s reach and experience give Lucasfilm the opportunity to blaze new trails in film, television, interactive media, theme parks, live entertainment, and consumer products.”
As most of us know, fans of Star Wars and other Lucasfilm properties have loudly criticized Lucas for retaining tight control on his old works and, worse still, meddling with them by releasing updated versions to replace the beloved originals. There has long been a wish that Lucas would let Star Wars "live beyond" him—but I doubt selling it to Disney is what anyone had in mind.
It's unlikely anyone has high hopes for the quality of future Star Wars movies, but if Disney built a Star Wars theme park, it'd probably be a hit. Meanwhile, what are the odds that Darth Vader will finally get paid?
We've been writing about the patent troll Eolas for about a decade at this point. It's a trolling operation connected to the University of California, and used to take some ridiculously broad patents and try to shake down companies who actually innovated and did incredibly obvious things on the internet. Eolas' various lawsuits had gone back and forth over the years, and finally, earlier this year, a jury in East Texas (surprisingly) invalidated some of the key patents.
This summer, the judge in the case agreed that the key patents were invalid. Eolas had ridiculously tried to argue that the fact that some other companies had previously licensed the patents should have been shared with the jury to prove the "validity" of the patents. Of course, that's ridiculous on its face as trolls often convince companies to license bogus patents because it's cheaper to settle and license than to fight a bad patent lawsuit (even if you win). Of course, the judge blasted Eolas over this desire... because earlier in the case, Eolas had specifically argued that the jury shouldn't be allowed to know of Eolas' previous "business success or failure." Basically, Eolas didn't want the jury to know it was a troll without any real business. However, as the judge realized, Eolas can't hide that bit of info and then want the jury to have this other bit of info from its past.
Thus, for all intents and purposes it seemed that those two key patents -- 5,838,906 and 7,599,985 -- were effectively dead.
What's really amazing is that this scorched earth, anti-innovation effort hasn't created more backlash for the University of California, and Berkeley in particular, given its proximity to Silicon Valley. You'd think that alums of the University who work at the various innovative tech companies that keep getting sued would speak out against their alma mater. It's pretty sad to see the University of California trying to set up a tollbooth on innovation by using such ridiculous patents.
from the support-disney,-stomp-out-the-public-domain dept
Walt Disney is a company that has regularly taken from the public domain, but which famously refuses to give back to the public domain. Many of its most famous movies were public domain stories that Disney co-opted and then locked up with copyright. Disney has also been one of the main proponents of expanding copyright at every opportunity. As many people have noted, it was a driving force behind the 1998 copyright term extension, which some have called the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act," because it kept Mickey Mouse from going into the public domain for another 20 years.
Of course, that leaves out that Disney was more or less founded on both copyright infringement (the true history of Mickey Mouse involves Disney copying another movie that was still under copyright) and using the public domain, not copyright. Disney's creativity wasn't brought to the world because of copyright, but often in spite of copyright. You can find the history in lots of places, but this recent blog post highlights how many of Disney's early works exist thanks to the public domain:
The Disney company had a moderate level of success with the original characters featured in early black and white short films. Disney did not really hit stride until making full length animated features. Giving credit where due, “Fantasia” was original Disney characters and story line, if you want to call it that. “Fantasia” was literally a series of short animated stories edited together to a soundtrack made up of mostly public domain music for which Disney paid no license (with the exception of “The Rite Of Spring”).
From there on, most Disney feature animations would be based on stories that had since fallen into public domain. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and many other princess stories, were based on age old fairy tales that Disney was not required to pay license or royalties for. Later works would include children’s literature like: “Pinocchio”, “Alice in Wonderland” , “The Jungle Book” (released just one year after Kipling’s copyright expired),– All in the public domain! Disney didn’t pay a cent for story license, yet reaped many millions. The “Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin” and all features made under the reign of Michael Eisner, would be from public domain. Of course, Disney touted “The Lion King” as an original story. Not! Besides being an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” told through a pride of lions, there are way too many similarities between The Lion King and a 1960s Japanese animated series called “Kimba the White Lion”. Though Disney claims these a coincidence, they would sue anyone else into oblivion if they came half as close to one of their properties.
It seems that perhaps someone else ought to do a presentation on "The Walt-Disney Company: Creativity, Brought to you by the Public Domain." Otherwise, we're going to see efforts like TPP seek to further kill off the public domain.
There's an almost entirely silly article over at CNN speculating -- with absolutely no knowledge -- about the identity of a woman seen frequently with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. I'm not quite sure how that makes a news story, but what caught Dark Helmet's eye was that in this bizarre little story, there was a bit from Disney, in which it felt compelled to mention that a performance seen by Kim and the woman that included Disney characters was not authorized:
The mystery woman accompanied the young leader to a Pyongyang theater on Friday night to watch a performance of North Korea's Moranbong band. The display included a cast of Disney characters, attracting the attention of The Walt Disney Company which issued a statement Tuesday saying it had not authorized their use.
As if (1) anyone cared about that or (2) anyone actually thought that Disney had licensed its characters to the North Korean government for a special performance.
This is what happens when, as a company, you seem to have infringement-on-the-brain, and think anything and everything must absolutely be framed within the context of whether or not something is infringing.
The broadest, most obvious trend in media consumption is the shift to an on-demand world, where content is available when you want it on whatever device you're using. In the day-to-day, this gets lost behind neverending squabbles about licensing, and severely limited offerings accompanied by bold statements about embracing technology—but in the long run, what's happening couldn't be any more clear. Any long-term strategy for relevance and success in the world of media has to embrace that momentum by building new business models around such distribution schemes, while gracefully dismantling the business models that rely on dying habits and the limitations of antiquated technology.
Or, you can attempt to reshape the cultural norms of future generations by going to the source: kids. At least that's what analyst Todd Juenger suggests in a recent report about children's programming on Netflix. Juenger conducted a focus group with mothers and discovered that they really like Netflix as a source of entertainment for their kids, especially since they can put it on whenever they want—and that kids are growing accustomed this. To hear Juenger talk about it, you'd think this was both surprising and bad (it's neither). His advice to the providers of children's programming? Stop this trend immediately:
His advice for entertainment companies is to be cautious about how much kids programming they make available to the online video streaming provider and in which windows. "We remain firm in our belief Viacom and Walt Disney should limit their content availability on Netflix," Juenger wrote.
"Moms are increasingly directing their kids to alternative viewing modes for content control, commercial avoidance and time management," Juenger summarized the findings. "The moms we talked to originally subscribed to Netflix for themselves, but have recognized the dwindling supply of content for adults and are now using the service primarily for their kids…The content selection is perceived to be significantly better for kids than for adults, and the lack of commercials and ability to control the viewing choices are seen as positives.”
According to the analyst, the focus groups described children as device agnostic, "happily watching on TV sets, tablets, computers, even phones, with indifference." The result: “Our concern regarding Viacom and Disney’s kids’ networks has been reinforced,” Juenger said. “Viacom and Disney should do everything in their power to steer viewership toward modes with the best long-term economics, namely traditional TV and emerging forms of TV Everywhere VOD.”
Yes, he's confirmed that the "lack of commercials and ability to control the viewing choices are seen as positives", in case anyone in Hollywood was still clinging to the hope that consumers would grow to hate those things. And yes, kids are "happily watching" on a variety of devices, and we can't have that, can we? Some might respond to the observation of a clear consumer preference in young children by trying to embrace that change early (if anything Hollywood does with technology can be called "early" at this point) but Juenger thinks they're better off trying to hold back the tide, or at least redirect it into their proprietary canals.
The funniest part is that suggesting Disney and Viacom should try to "steer viewership" is appealing to the very power such companies are losing. Big media empires don't get to "steer viewership" the way they used to, and that's exactly why these new distribution methods represent a threat to them. Juenger is suggesting they keep the sinking ship afloat by tying it to... itself. That's not going to work.
Kids are notoriously picky eaters when it comes to anything that isn't a dessert. Parents aren't helped when their kids are bombarded by ads on TV for all kinds of junk food. But here are a few food efforts that might divert kids' attentions back to healthier foods.
There has been plenty of talk over the years about why we keep extending copyright. Of course, we've discussed the infamous Mickey Mouse Curve, showing how copyright extension always seems to happen whenever Mickey Mouse is going to hit the public domain.
However, Julian Sanchez notes that this doesn't explain the whole story. After all, if it was just about protecting the very, very small number of works that still have commercial value after so many years, then you would think we would have evolved away from the "copyright absolutely everything for as long as possible" model, to one that plenty of people have suggested: one where there are regular (and perhaps escalating) recurring fees to keep renewing your copyright registration. That way, works like Mickey Mouse could stay covered by copyright, but all the other works which have been otherwise abandoned can actually contribute back to culture and be used by anyone who wants to make something with them.
As Sanchez notes, you would think that even the Disneys of the world would like this model better. Even if it had to pay such recurring fees, the overall cost will ultimately be tiny compared to the value of the copyright. Plus, it would then open up a treasure trove of public domain material that they could use in their own works -- and Disney, in particular, has a well known history of making use of public domain works.
So why do we still have a "copyright everything for as long as we live, plus 70 years" (for now)? Sanchez posits a compelling theory. That Disney and other big copyright holders like this, because it keeps them from having to compete with their own back catalog:
Insanely long copyright terms are how the culture industries avoid competing with their own back catalogs. Imagine that we still had a copyright term that maxed out at 28 years, the regime the first Americans lived under. The shorter term wouldn’t in itself have much effect on output or incentives to create. But it would mean that, today, every book, song, image, and movie produced before 1984 was freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Under those conditions, would we be anywhere near as willing to pay a premium for the latest release? In some cases, no doubt. But when the baseline is that we already have free, completely legal access to every great album, film, or novel produced before the mid-80s—more than any human being could realistically watch, read, or listen to in a lifetime—I wouldn’t be surprised if our consumption patterns became a good deal less neophilic, or at the very least, prices on new releases had to drop substantially to remain competitive.
This story certainly fits with Disney -- who famously decides to completely stop selling certain old classics and put them "in the vault" for a while, pulling them off the market entirely. For Disney, it's all about keeping out competition, which it wouldn't be able to do if copyright didn't last so long.
This actually reminds me of the missing 20th century of books that we discussed a few months back, highlighting how the amount of new works from each decade drop off rapidly the further back you go, until you hit 1923 -- the current cut-off for the public domain.
Sanchez does note that it's possible this actually drives more investment into new works, since they don't have to compete with the old. And, if you believe (which he doesn't) that new works automatically have more value than old, then you could make a twisted sort of argument that this kind of protectionism, and effective locking-up of about a century's worth of creativity, does "promote the progress" in that it moves the focus to newer works, rather than older ones. But I don't buy that at all. It ignores the fact that the giant gap doesn't just represent competitive works, but also raw material and inspiration for all kinds of amazing new works -- which are effectively killed off.
That gap represents lost culture. But, for the big legacy entertainment players, it might also represent repressed competition. That shouldn't really be surprising. After all, that is the whole purpose of government-granted monopoly privileges.
Summary of Parts One and Two: The essential balance of copyright between incentives for creators and the feeding of a rich and unlicensed public domain has been undone by a long series of misguided efforts to save copyright by making its rules both stronger and less enforceable at the same time. The industry’s tactics have backfired, eroding what was left of any moral authority for obeying the law. And that was the chief (and most efficient) mechanism for enforcement all along.
The repeated and retroactive extension of copyright terms, largely at the behest of the Disney Corporation, has had the unintended consequence of creating a nation of felons, both technically and in spirit. According to one provocative study by John Tehranian, we all violate copyright unintentionally many times a day. And to the extent we realize it, we don't care.
To return to the parking analogy, the result of these legal changes has been to paint every curb a red zone—it's now illegal to park anywhere. The result is not perfect enforcement of copyright but its opposite. No one obeys the law or thinks they ought to. Getting caught is more or less a random event, and rational consumers won't change their behavior to avoid it.
The center will not hold. Large media holding companies are becoming desperate, expending their resources not to find new ways of making money but to secure passage of increasingly draconian laws (SOPA) and treaties (ACTA) that give them more, largely unusable new powers. Even if passed, these legal tools will do little to improve legal enforcement. But they are certain to cause dangerous and unintended new harms.
At the same time, the marketing machines of these same companies have convinced us that our right to enjoy content is inherent—the American Way. Once offered, we imagine free content should always be free, even if the rightsholder changes its mind or intended all along to attach conditions to consumption based on time or place or the ability to associate mechanisms, such as advertising, that allowed for indirect revenue generation.
Americans don't understand that subtlety, and rightsholders have given them no reason to try. Public education efforts have been pathetic. Instead of teaching consumers the costs and dangers to the delicately-balanced system from copyright infringement, they emphasize moral and legal prohibitions that are rightly perceived by consumers as petulant, cynical, and amusingly out-of-touch.
These campaigns, for starters, say nothing about the economics of content production and distribution. They are morality tales, narrated by fabulists who pride themselves, in their day jobs, on their mastery of manipulation and misdirection. It's as if Darth Vader sat down with preschoolers to talk about why they shouldn't throw stones at the Death Star because of the potential for property damage.
Consider just a few examples below: YouTube's mandatory copyright "school" for violators and
the classic 1992 "Don't Copy that Floppy:"
Clearly, not much has changed over the last twenty years in efforts to change public perceptions and behaviors. The Hollywood that can produce blockbuster movies somehow can't make a PSA that isn't a self-parody.
I think the public can be educated, and should be. Here's where I part company with those who reject copyright altogether. The theory of copyright—limited monopoly in exchange for a rich public domain—is still a good one, and the system created by the English, adapted by early Congresses, had the virtue of being largely self-enforcing and therefore efficient.
It is the 20th and 21st century imbalance in copyright, and not copyright itself, that must be fixed. And it can be fixed. There is a way out of this dangerous and increasingly tense cold war between content industries and their customers. Here's a simple three-step solution:
If rightsholders want consumers to obey the law and support their preferred business model, they first need to stop making it impossible for consumers to follow the rules. Copyright needs to be weakened, not strengthened.
Content industries need to end the stalling and excuses—perhaps understandable in 1998, when I first wrote about digital distribution in "Unleashing the Killer App," but not now, nearly fifteen years later. They need to embrace digital media and new channels fully, even if doing so means tolerating a considerable amount of unauthorized distribution and reuse as working models for profit-generation rapidly evolve.
Public education needs to focus not on self-righteous indignation but on collaborating with consumers on finding ways to compensate creators for the value of their work. If consumers understood the economics of content creation and distribution, and given an easy way to cooperate, they'd do it.
Ironically, there's every reason to believe that embracing a relaxed copyright regime and encouraging creative reuse would actually generate more revenue for creators. That, in any case, has been the lesson of every form of new media to be invented in the last hundred years or more.
Each of them was initially resisted and branded as illegal and immoral. Each of them—from the player piano to the photocopier to the VCR to the Internet—has instead offered salvation and riches to those who figure out the new rules for working with them and not against them. (Hint: network effects rule.) Rightsholders consistently confuse each fading media technology with the true value of the content they control. The medium is not the message.
For now, industry apologists—the MPAA, the RIAA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others—are caught in a dangerous cycle of denial and anger. A growing number of consumers refuse to follow the current rules. So they lobby to make the rules stronger and the penalties more severe, amping up the moral rhetoric along the way.
But this only serves to starve the public domain more, undermining the basic principles of copyright. With the system increasingly out of balance, self-enforcement becomes even less likely. The law is impossible to obey, and rarely enforced. So consumers make up their own rules, for better or worse, with expensive and unnecessary casualties piling up on both sides.
Eventually, consumers and creators find the right balance and the most effective forms of compensation, regardless of the industry's efforts to cut off their nose to spite their face.
Then along comes another disruptive technology and a new round of customer innovation, and the cycle starts all over.
Rights holders remain stubbornly parked in the same old spots, afraid that if they move their vehicles at all they'll be doomed to circling the block forever, unable to stop until they permanently run out of gas.
The rest of us, meanwhile, are happily enjoying our flying cars.
The United Nations recently announced the lateset members to its "multistakeholder advisory group" on the issue of "internet governance." As they state, there are 56 members in the group, 33 of which are new. Considering that this is a group that is supposedly planning to act as stakeholders for "governing" the internet, you would hope that it would actually be representative of, you know, internet users. In fact, the press release from the UN states:
"The Advisory Group members are from all stakeholder groups and all regions, representing Governments, the private sector, civil society, academia and technical communities."
But when you look down the actual list, a different story appears. It looks like the list is pretty much dominated by government "IP" officials, as well as people from telcos, and then people in the domain name registration field. And then there's an exec from the world's largest patent trolling firm, Intellectual Ventures. Oh, and the VP of Global Public Policy Europe for Disney. Because I'm sure we're all comfortable letting Disney determine how the internet should be governed. Are these really the people we want "governing" the internet? There is at least someone from ISOC (the Internet Society), but I'm having a hard time seeing this as a group of people who should actually represent the public in terms of "governing" the internet.