from the chilling-effects dept
Kickstarter provides a way for creators to route around the strictures of traditional publishing industries for a variety of reasons. We've seen Double Fine break the bank on Kickstarter, after getting a lot of blank stares from publishers who didn't think there was a market for point-and-click adventure games. We've seen top Hollywood talent fund a film on Kickstarter to ensure no studio execs would be meddling with their movie. Now, in what I think is a first, we've got a parody author turning to Kickstarter after his publisher dropped the project, citing fear of a legal backlash.
Michael Gerber already had some published parodies under his belt (most recently the Barry Trotter series, from Gollancz, which also publishes spoofs like Bored of the Rings) when he was approached by a major publisher for his take on TV drama Downton Abbey. The writing was complete and the contracts were almost signed—but as he puts it:
And then somebody in New York started… thinking.
“What if [Downton Abbey creator] Julian Fellowes gets mad?”
“What if they hire another company to publish the official Downton Abbey Calendar/Tea Cozy instead of us?”
“What if I make the wrong decision and get fired?”
So even though Downturn Abbey is the most fun I’ve ever had writing a spoof, Mr. Big Publisher changed his mind and offered me a couple bucks to shred the manuscript.
The hell with that! I like this book too much to kill it.
So, rather than accept the kill fee, Gerber is trying to self-publish the book with crowdsourced funds—and with over 50% funding only a few days into the campaign, it looks likely that he'll hit his (relatively modest) goal of $3,500. It's interesting to see a publisher's legal panic serving as the prime motivation for a Kickstarter project. In the "Risks And Challenges" section that Kickstarter now requires on all projects, Gerber directly addresses the legal question, and takes an admirably principled stance:
Now, some of you might be thinking, "Won't he get sued?" I've been doing this professionally since 1991, and so far, so good. Parody — particularly print parody — has a very robust precedent, and I've specifically written Downturn Abbey to fall within it.
A right only exists if you exercise it, and one of the biggest reasons I'm crowdfunding this project instead of taking the kill fee is to assert the right to critique our shared culture via parody. Media corporations will extend their rights relentlessly, so if you like parody — in any medium — it's important to support it in print, because this is where it is most vulnerable. Nobody's suing Jon Stewart, but if parody gets rolled back, that's the logical next step. Downturn Abbey is a harmless bit of fun for fans of the show and the era, but if it can be suppressed out of corporate risk-aversion, sooner or later that attitude will have a chilling effect on the rest of comedy.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of copyright lawsuits and fair use defenses, it would cost a lot more than $3,500 to defend his stance in court. Hopefully, though, it won't ever come to that—the creators of (and anyone else with a copyright stake in) the show would hopefully realize that there's little point (and less honor) in trying to squash out parodies of this nature. However, Gerber's move also highlights the associated problem: even when something is as well-protected as parody, copyright law can have a huge chilling effect by making publishers nervous. Kickstarter and other tools for creators are, at least, helping to combat this—for a publisher, standing behind a parody is just another risk factor in the spreadsheet; for Gerber, it's a matter of standing up for his rights.