Tuesday, May 01, 2007

In Defense Of Dead Things (or Dix's Drabble)

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According to Wikipedia:
In fan fiction writing circles, many fandoms have a drabble community which sets a weekly prompt for authors to use in a drabble. A prompt can be a specific situation such as ‘someone is bleeding,’ an instruction such as ‘only dialogue,’ or ‘from the point of view of a minor character,’ etc. The resulting stories are more and more often referred to as drabbles, and the meaning has extended in some places to include anything that is less than 500 words.

So McGrath incited a small war over at his place with some Fickle Fanfickers, and even though I think he covered all the bases really well, he still lobbed me a prompt: you want to take a shot at explaining the concept of "the execution of similar ideas" being the operative thing -- like the basis for copyright law and the like?

Here goes nothing (and I'll try to keep it under 500 words)...


Copyright is a set of exclusive rights regulating the use of a particular expression of an idea or information. At its most general, it is literally "the right to copy" an original creation. Copyright may subsist in a wide range of creative, intellectual, or artistic forms or "works" (like movies or TV series). Copyright is one of the laws covered by the umbrella term 'intellectual property'.

The law considers a trademark to be a form of property. A registered trademark confers a bundle of exclusive rights upon the registered owner, including the right to exclusive use of the mark in relation to the products or services for which it is registered. The law in most jurisdictions also allows the owner of a registered trademark to prevent unauthorised use of the mark in relation to products or services which are similar to the "registered" products or services, and in certain cases, prevent use in relation to entirely dissimilar products or services.

So copyright law covers or protects the creative or artistic expression of an idea. Trademark law covers distinctive signs which are used in relation to products or services as indicators of origin.

And fan fiction would seem to be in breach of all these laws...yet it thrives, oh how it thrives.

I've never been accused of 'stealing' any fan fiction writing, but I've certainly been witness to many forum threads by viewers of 'Psi Factor' discussing the similarities of unfolding storylines we were writing on the series to the speculative fiction they'd been writing.

Thankfully, that's as far as it went, and that's as far it should ever go.

Because I don't think there really is anything wrong with fan fic, much like there wasn't really anything wrong with making mix cassette tapes of songs from your fav record albums or cd's (but here's the caveat) as long as it remains in your own home for your own personal use or enjoyment.

You see, it's the internets that are causing the grief....the ability to put it 'out there' for 'anyone to see'. But that said, it's the way it is, and like for those who take existing material and create mashups on Youtube...the concept of copyright infringement doesn't really seem to exist. It's become too ingrained in society's 'fun to do' consciousness to be able to stamp it out with an angry 'yer breaking the law'! rant. And 'busting' some fan fic sites or writers would probably accomplish about as little as all the Napster busts did...

So how to work with it as opposed to fighting it. I'll attempt a plea for reason and compromise...

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type or create a particular chosen text, like one of Shakespeare's plays. Robert Wilensky once joked, "We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true."

I get what Wilensky is saying, and I know he's referring primarily to quality, but in terms of similarity, I think it is quite possible. When you establish an arena (a hospital that admits patients with the most obscure ailments in the world) with a cranky yet brilliant physician (House) and his faithful sidekicks (Cameron, Foreman, etc.) and then set up all the interpersonal relationship possibilities, it's very easy for one of those million monkeys, er...I mean, fan fic writers, to 'unfold' the series in a very similar way.

It's another law...the law of probability.

If you're writing fan fiction and putting it out on the net, then copyright and trademark infringement is taking place and by all accounts, you're breaking the law. These are laws, however, that are next to impossible to enforce. So let's at least all agree that the legal law should only land on one side of these two teams, and that's the side of the original writer/creators.

And to all the fan fic writers out there - we appreciate your enthusiasm, but please consider it an honour and privilege to be able to play with someone else's toys.....and just leave it at that.

The Drylander

4 comments:

RixelStudios said...

Fan Fics are interesting aren't they? They use character names and locations (and usually show titles) associated with a series. Perhaps they even use the particular character designs very effectively. However for all intensive purposes, they many fan fics out there (and the ones I'm arguing for) are creating original pieces of work. The story concept is original, the character interactions are original, the text is original. Yet disagreement exists over their right to place their fan fiction in a free access area, like the internet.

Don't get me wrong: if someone was putting a fan fiction on a paid website, and thus making profit off of someone elses created characters I'm all for trying to exert legal pressure on something which so many other have failed. With the exception of name usage though, if the individual creates the entire story then it is an original piece of fiction. Change the names of House characters to "Condo" and "Fivman" and I fail to see the problem. Even from a legal standpoint its harder to question when names are different.

I'm not necessarily defending the breaking of copyright, but there are some grey areas and other perspectives to consider (which I'm sure you have, but feel the need to bring up anyway).

Here's one other scenario I'd run by you just to get your feel on. You've seen Pulp Fiction I imagine? Say I, as a director, go out and rehire all the same crew that Tarentino did and all the same actors (including bit parts) and reshot the entire movie frame-for-frame at the same locations. However, instead of using the storyline in Pulp Fiction, I created a story of my own, that flowed just as smoothly with the cuts and scenes as the one in Pulp Fiction. I then instilled my own soundtrack and special effects and sounds. Would I be breaking copyright law?

It's a touchy issue, I think, and obviously one that won't ever get resolved until someone has the resources to try it and get sued by Tarentino and co, but one that I think would ultimately have the defendant victorious. The look may have been the same, and the DoP/Editors might have something to say about that (and win.. unless they were hired as well) but otherwise it's an original creation isn't it? The fact that the images and edits are the same is irrelevant if I actually went and reshot it and re-edited it all myself, not copied it from a dvd.

It's not a perfect example, but it follows the same general principle of Fan Fics. It's something to think about anyway. Enjoy ripping apart my argument or not as you see fit!

DMc said...

It's not an original work. It's a derivative work. If you want to talk about or reference copyright law, you're kind of obliged to go out and actually figure out what the law says. Wishing something does not make it so.

wcdixon said...

Yeah...I'm with DMc here Rixel - what about what you are describing makes it 'original'? And if it is as you describe, "name usage only", then why not change the names and call it its own name? Why call it 'House' fan fic then? It's because it's 'not' name usage only - the arena/ characters/ relationships/ etc. have all been created and set into motion by someone else. And if you want to send House and Cuddy off on a cruise and they get shipwrecked on an island and decide to 'play doctor' with each other, fine...but don't think for a moment that it's 'original'.

As for your Pulp Fiction scenario, it sounds like what you'd be changing is the dialogue - but the rest of your proposal certainly sounds like you're 'copying' the movie. 'Psycho' went through a similar exercise several years ago...and they had to get permission to remake the movie, even though it was a different cast and different crew. And the result was a pointless, derivative exercise at that.

CAROLINE said...

Nice post, Dix.