It’s time to admit that the concept of copyright has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
In theory, copyright is there to protect artists and creators, to allow them to make money off their work, and to encourage creativity. In practice, it just leads to stagnation and to corporations profiting off of characters they simply are fortunate enough to own.
As usual, I’ll go to a comic book example. DC owns the characters of Batman and Superman. Nobody working at DC created these characters. They are simply inherited property, held by a giant corporate machine. DC profits because decades ago, an employee created some cool characters and then DC claimed those characters as its own. End of story.
The system is simply broken.
While the struggle against cultural stagnation is nothing new, the fact of the matter is that when you pass a character or an idea to an immortal corporation, real growth and change is difficult, if not impossible. Because people create, but corporations own. And that’s the real dilemma we face today. Is ownership more important than work?
It could be argued that what keeps Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. fresh is the creative people behind them. Even if these people didn’t create these characters, there are still talented and capable writers and artists who keep the characters alive and kicking. But even then, these folks are still employees, still subject to the whim of executives. If the order comes down to kill character X or resurrect character Z, then this will happen. And this will be decided by someone who is less interested in telling a good story than in increasing sales.
There’s nothing wrong with commercial success, nor with striving for it. But if it’s all about sales, then there’s no reason to develop any new characters, new ideas. And the thing about characters, about franchises, is that they don’t ever really go bad. Not often anyway. And hardly ever do they have an expiration date.
Certainly, not every character is timeless and a character or a concept might have a great appeal for a limited time. But some ideas and characters are so transcendent that they can stick around for a really, really long time. Batman is a great example. While he’s had his ups and downs, he has never really disappeared from the public consciousness. That’s because he’s pretty damn flexible as a concept. You can do goofy Batman stories, dark Batman stories, sci fi Batman stories, noir Batman stories, and so on. While he hasn’t always been a cash cow, he is certainly unlikely to be replaced anytime soon. He’s a product without an expiration date, one that can be repackaged and sold over and over again. This isn’t so bad if his creator and owner is mortal. But once that owner is an immortal corporation, you end up with a real desire not to innovate. If you doubt me, I can only point out that DC has created a new version that starts with his origin all over again. Because we haven’t seen that enough.
This is a big reason why I can’t get behind the re-release of Star Wars in 3D. It’s not a new product. It’s the same old product reprocessed to appear new so that a corporation can make more money. George Lucas too, I suppose. Basically, it’s a foolproof moneymaking scheme because it requires minimal investment and is guaranteed to cash in. But it, frankly, amazes me that we continue to fall for it.
Nobody who created Mickey Mouse has anything to do with him today. He’s a corporate shill, a face to put on a T-shirt. And while that’s always been part of why he existed, it shouldn’t be the ONLY reason he exists.
I’ll admit that I’m skeptical that self-publishing is the amazing revolution it often claims to be. At this stage, it’s still working out the kinks. I’m hopeful that it will figure the stuff that corporations excel at: namely distribution and marketing, two areas where self-pub rarely can compete against established corporate structures. If that can ever work itself out, then creator owned works have a better chance. But that’s a ways off.
As a novelologist, I’m lucky. Though I moved publishers, I still control my characters. I could write another GIL’S ALL FRIGHT DINER if I chose. Or a sequel to THE AUTOMATIC DETECTIVE. Though Tor owns the rights to publication of the original stories, I own the characters and settings. Tor can’t publish those stories without me getting royalties. Not that Tor has ever exhibited any hostility toward giving me my fair share. They’ve always been accommodating and genial.
On the other hand, if they owned my characters, you probably would’ve seen a sequel by now. That might be a good thing if you want a sequel, but it certainly wouldn’t be for me. Not financially. And probably not creatively either.
It all comes down to financial incentives. Corporations are, first and foremost, about making money. And you can make money by taking chances, but why bother when you can also make money with minimal time and investment? If corporations were genuinely people, they’d be motivated by a desire to be better, to challenge themselves. But they are NOT people. They are vast, soulless financial machines that want to make a profit. And while a desire to profit is not bad, it certainly isn’t good when it’s your soul motivation.
So what does it all add up to? I can’t honestly say. It’s easy to demonize corporations. Usually, it’s justified. An unbridled lust for profit, unconstrained by any conscience, is just about the most dangerous thing around. Add to that the near unlimited financial power available to many a corporation (or even some individuals) and you run into a serious problem.
We can’t change copyright law, but we can demand better. I’m not against Star Wars. I’m against Star Wars being repackaged and resold to us without any real effort. I’m not against Batman stories. I’m just against Batman stories that don’t need to be told anymore. And I’m not against Spider-Man movies. I’m just against another lazy and heartless effort created mostly so a corporation can meet a contractual obligation to keep a second corporation from getting those rights.
We can do better. We can demand better. Copyright might belong to the corporations, but creativity should belong to the people.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,