Wither Copyright?

One of the interesting things that has come out of the fanfiction debate here are the startling misconceptions some people have about how copyright applies to intellectual property.  Here’s a sampling of views about copyright expressed here over the last few days by fanfiction authors and fans…

a) If the copyright to a book, movie, or TV series  is owned by a corporation rather than an individual, it’s  "a shared world" and therefore belongs to everybody.

single person DOES own those characters, or that world, and different
writers may portray characters differently. These are shared worlds
with input that ranges from producer to screen writer to director to
actors, or writer to artist to inker to series editor. We’re *not*
dealing with the vision of a single author or creator.

Here’s another expression of the same view:

It’s hard for me to have any respect for corporations that have no problem with plagiarism as long as it makes them money. Companies and publishers don’t really give a shit as long as they’re
making money, and it’s despicable that they usually get more protection
(and money) than the original creator. Personally, when it comes to the copyright mess, I don’t give a fuck
about the laws–I care more about what the original creator’s opinion.
Feel free to care about the will of the corporations and publishers,
too, but really, it’s not their property.

b) If the characters/stories/worlds were created by writers/artists as work-for-hire (either for comics, TV or movies), copyright protections do not apply.

These are DC characters we’re talking about here. The actual
creators of the characters? Have absolutely no rights to them. Want to
talk about disrespect? Let’s talk about a company that takes the
copyright from the creators and makes money off of it. The authors have
already been stripped of their rights by DC. In the end, who cares about copyright?

c)  Copyright only protects the writers from others making money off their work. Otherwise, people can do whatever they like with the authors characters, stories, etc.:

The thing is you can’t possess ideas. Copyright law protects your right
to make money off your ideas for a certain length of time. It does not
protect your idea from being taken, developped further, twisted,
caricatured, or simply taken into another direction if no monetary
purpose is linked to that.

d) Since the original work (book, movie, TV episode) isn’t altered, copyright isn’t violated.

since fanfic writers never pretend to have created the characters in
question, nor do they profit from sharing their stories, what exactly
are they stealing? How can something be thought of as stolen if it
never left the owner’s possession to begin with?

e) Copyright is pointless because all creative work is derivative.

Authors steal from each other all the time. Some are embarrassed
about it. Most of us get over that and recognize that — if we are
LUCKY — we’ll have one or two really original ideas in our entire
lives, and that even THOSE will have built upon other people’s worki.
Most of what we write will be taken from something or someone else. 

So, in short — don’t be ridiculous. And that goes triple for the
publishers, MPAA, and all the other people out there becoming
anal-retentive on these topics.

If you’re a writer, regardless of how you feel about fanfiction, these misconceptions about copyright are pretty scary… especially when you consider these are people who might some day vote on changes to copyright law in the future. For instance:

And all those slash stories and other "warping" of the characters is
simply AU (Alternate Universe stories). I don’t like them all, but I
defend their right to exist. I wish the trademark laws can be changed
to take the legal stigma off fan fic.

Or, as another poster put it:

Since the rules of copyright keep changing, I don’t think it is wrong
or futile to contemplate changing them further, in a direction
different than the one they have been taking recently. And using
familiar characters who are already part of the public consciousness
does not strike me as wrong per se, especially in a not-for-profit

Gee, I wonder what different direction that would be? Providing even fewer protections for artists? Why do you suppose there is so little respect for protecting an artist’s right to control how his work is published, broadcast, used or altered?

9 thoughts on “Wither Copyright?”

  1. Lee,
    I understand the copyright issue of fanfic, but I don’t get your stand on hating fanfic. Aren’t you writing fanfic? You didn’t invent DR. Sloan. You are using preexisting characters in new situations too.

  2. Leaving aside the relative merits or lack thereof of fanfic… I find this lack of respect of the rights of copyright holders to be troubling. For people who claim to be writers and artists themselves, I’m shocked that they’d care so little for the artistic rights of others.

  3. This is more akin to a sick voyeurism that is walking the line of legality. When it’s crossed these infringers working without authority can be held accountable. And will be.

  4. Lee,
    While I enjoy fan fic and have a few stories myself, I do agree on how scary these misconceptions are.
    Yes, I know what I do breaks copyright. But since the publisher in question doesn’t care, I don’t worry.
    And yes, I’m a hypocrite, why do you ask?

  5. Let’s leave “fanfic” out of this discussion… there’s plenty of places to talk about that elsewhere on my blog!

  6. But what about your own misconceptions of Copyright law, Lee? Fanfic aside, copyright law has held time and time again that ideas and facts cannot be owned and possessed. And there’s plenty of case law to back this up. The only time a particular right to something like a fictional character has been upheld was in commercial use in advertising, like the James Bond case. Your position is not nearly so rock solid as you claim. You might at least try to present other sides to this argument.
    Absolute possession of an idea by its creator or a fact by its discoverer would stifle creativity and progress–as the courts and the governing bodies have decided in numerous countries.

  7. It’s not really a question of the copying of an idea, though. If you write a story about a diverse group of characters exploring the galaxy on a spaceship, that’s not fanfic, and it doesn’t infringe on anyone’s intellectual property. That’s what writers do.
    But if you write a story that features Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, etc., that’s a different matter, and that does infringe on the copyright. The only argument that might get you around this is to try to claim permission under the fair use doctrine, but that seems very unlikely to be persuasive.
    This is an obvious, clear-cut difference.

  8. Can I get a definition on what Copyright laws are meant to do, please? Are they designed to protect things against any use whatsoever, in which case writing a book report and using direct quotes would be a violation of them? I doubt it. Are they designed purely to protect the profits of the person in question, in which case fanfic wouldn’t be subject to them, as a non-profit activity? From Lee’s words, I doubt that, too. So what is it actually for?
    — and no, this isn’t a question about how much you have to change an idea for it not to be subject to copyright. I can make a fairly educated guess at that.

  9. Ultimately, the purpose of copyright law is to provide an incentive for authors to create original works, by giving them legal protection for their creations. Copyright laws give the rights holders the ability to control, disseminate and profit from his/her/its creation. (This includes the right to create derivative works, of which fanfic would be an example.)
    Under the Fair Use doctrine, it is not an infringement of copyright to make short quotations from a work for purposes of criticism, comment, teaching, scholarship, or research, assuming the proper attribution is made.


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