Peter G (sinetimore) wrote,
Peter G

The Unfortunate Necessity Of Current Copyright Laws

It's amazing how everything can be quiet on a certain front, and then, in less than a week, it blows up with all sorts of news, events, and coverage. And in doing so, people become so angry about something they overlook why what they hate needs to exist in the first place.

But first, I want to lead off with a reference. Something that is a fun, interesting memory that actually portends a lot more once it is held up against the big picture.

On Star Trek -- Deep Space Nine, one of the main characters was Major Kira Nerys, a no-nonsense, take charge woman who had been a prominent figure in the liberation of her planet. During one episode, she and the head of station security, Odo, discovered another regular character, Quark, was shadowing her and taking holographic images of her. Given that Quark had previously admitted he had hoped to get Kira drunk and get into her pants (start of the Season 2 episode "The Circle"), this was cause for some concern.

Upon being cornered, Quark said he was taking scans of Kira for use in a virtual reality program about the station, because there were people who wanted to see what it was like to explore the station and be a part of its operation (or people like me who wondered what exactly was on Level 3 of Quark's and how to get there). The duo quickly made the leap that the users might be interested more in things like virtual sex with Kira. Quark simply ignored the point and continued the discussion, which is telling -- he would flat out deny things even when confronted with solid evidence, so his silence on this point is damning. The whole operation was stopped simply because the principals were worried about the sexual angle of the whole thing.

It's hard to watch the scene and not see it as a little bit of playful finger-wagging at a fandom that helped create the phenomena of slashfic, fan fiction stories that focused on erotic content and romantic relationships. With the rise of fandoms in the present day, show creators, talent, and networks find themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to be encouraging and accepting of their audience while hoping things don't go too far. Lauren Faust, the creator of My Little Pony -- Friendship Is Magic, found herself on the receiving end of an Internet hate mob when she said she found the excesses of the Brony community to be disturbing. Alex Hirsch, the creator of the amazing Gravity Falls, loved his fandom, but said he found their efforts to write slashfic of Dipper and Mabel disturbing (Dipper and Mabel were underage, pre-pubescent, and brother and sister). The TV show Supernatural even addressed this when the central characters somehow came across fanfic that had been written about them, prompting one to ask, "They do know we're brothers, right?"

Now, the reason I'm focusing on the more icky elements of fandoms has to tie in with the protests going on over CBS/Paramount and their latest action involving the Star Trek fandom. It's an action that has people calling for a reworking of copyright law to allow exceptions for fan works made without the intent of making a profit.

Yes, once again, we are going to trudge into the legal quagmire that is the Star Trek fandom versus the Star Trek rights holders. In the past couple of years, things have gone from peaceful and everybody simply doing whatever to a hostile relationship with both sides doing questionable things that only reinforces the stances of the other side. Now, I've never been more than a casual Trek fan. I'm not in-depth on the lore of the series, but I know enough to follow what's happening, and I did enjoy it.

Now, some of you remember the last time I dealt with this, in the form of the Axanar lawsuits. The points of those original pieces remain the same. In fact, I debated even writing about this new development simply because I didn't want to repeat myself. However, this time, the situation is stripped of the other considerations that put CBS/Paramount on the more solid footing it had with Axanar, and the backlash this is inspiring is what I want to address. Simply because people are so determined to turn what was the product of benevolence into a right, and it can spell big big trouble if they get their way.

This latest skirmish started about two years ago. A fellow known only as Scragnog decided to use the Unreal Engine to create a virtual reality model of the Enterprise D from Star Trek -- The Next Generation. They officially dubbed it Stage Nine, which was the location on the Desilu Studios lot where the shipboard sets for the original Star Trek and for Star Trek Phase II were built. The project has slowly worked its way through, with people contributing and helping. There were builds for Windows, Mac, Linux, and even the current gen of VR headsets. From the beginning, it was emphasized that it was a fan project made without any money being charged and nobody being paid a dime for their work. It was a true labor of love.

Although Scragnog and the rest were aware that things could come to an end in a heartbeat.

The shoe dropped a couple of weeks ago when CBS/Paramount sent the Stage Nine crew a Cease And Desist order. Scragnog attempted to reach out about maybe making Stage Nine an official project in order to preserve it, but the only response they got to their inquiry was another Cease And Desist. CBS/Paramount weren't interested in discussion, so Scragnog pulled the plug on the project.

(Side note: if you want to see it but didn't download it, there are lots of "helpful" people putting the previous nine builds up on torrents. This becomes a trust issue, as you are downloading and installing software from people you don't know and don't know if they've slipped some fun little viruses and trojans into what you are installing. Only take what you can handle, and always know your dealer.)

Now, going back to the Axanar debacle, what makes this different to the point where the fandom is overwhelmingly in favor of Stage Nine? Well, the primary difference is that Stage Nine was just a ragtag group making the project. Axanar used the crowdfunded money to set up and incorporate an actual production studio that could be used for other things once Axanar was done. The folks behind Axanar could be rightly suspected of trying to piggyback off of Star Trek to create their own work, the "payment" coming in the form of the logistics for other projects being handled under the fan film umbrella. But Stage Nine had no such cheating, prompting people to wonder why.

There has been some speculation that CBS/Paramount did this because of their game Star Trek Bridge Crew, released by Ubisoft. They recently released DLC of the Enterprise D, so maybe they were worried that the fan project looked a little too good compared to their own project. In other words, they wouldn't have cared if it looked cheap and amateurish. But a professional quality thing that people could get for free instead of forking over cash for the same experience through official channels? No, that had to be stopped. I'm not sure if that's true or not (that was also part of the speculation behind their attacks on Axanar, as Star Trek Discovery was being planned for about the same time initially). Just saying that is the dominant theory.

Boss rush -- fan works are not Fair Use. They are still copyright and trademark violations. THEY ARE STILL ILLEGAL. They can only exist if the rights holders allow them to exist. Rights holders are not bound by precedent. They can be as generous, stingy, selective, and/or hypocritical about what they allow and what they don't as they want. They can change their minds, and something that was allowed before can be shut down in the future. Fan works exist under a benevolent dictatorship as long as the rights holders decline to press charges. THE FANS ARE OWED NOTHING. Yes, there are individuals who are cool with fan creations -- David Bowie, for example, was fine with people remixing and mashing up his own music, all he asked was that they send the results to him so he could hear what people were doing with his art. But just because some people have no problem with it doesn't mean everybody will react that way, and they are within their rights to make people stop. So now people are complaining about the "antiquated" copyright laws and how they need to be updated to allow genuine non-profit labors of love to exist. And CBS/Paramount is being held up as the Big Bad.

I've always been leery of making fan works. I've done fan works myself just for fun, as my Doctor Whooves comics that used to run on Bleeding Cool will attest. But there comes a point where you come to a realization. You go, "I'm working as an unpaid volunteer, creating something I will never own the rights to, for something I will never own the rights to, to make the rights holders look great and improve their reputation, while I languish in obscurity, and my reward for this is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!!" Yeah, sounds great, sign me up.

At that point, you might as well make some changes so that it stands on its own, becomes yours, and not only can you now do what you want with it without worrying about the original rights holders trying to shut you down for creating confusion in the marketplace, but you can go off in other directions that the current creative staff are not going in and have no interest in going in. I'm sorry, but The Orville, with its undercurrent of hope for the future of humanity, is more Star Trek than Star Trek currently is. And Seth McFarlane can ignore the darker, edgier, trendier vibe that CBS/Paramount feel Trek needs nowadays. All he had to do was differentiate it enough from Trek to stay out of legal trouble. Galaxy Quest is a similar tale, ostensibly a satire and parody of Star Trek that got its own comic book and TV development deals because it is different enough that no one can stop them.

Which brings me to, as Monty Python would say, the fulcrum of my gist. People want copyright laws changed to allow non-profit fan works to exist. But that begs the obvious question, what if the fan work is actually detrimental to the original work?

And we saw this recently, with Elsagate. For those that came in late, Elsagate was a bunch of people who had figured out how to game the YouTube algorithms and get adult content recommended and featured to viewers with Age Restrictions turned on, and took advantage of YouTube's rampant disinterest to do. Videos typically featured Elsa from Frozen, the Joker, and Spider-Man doing some really weird and disturbing stuff, such as a live action re-enactment of the fan-made Flash game where you try to impregnate Elsa or perform dental surgery on her, fart fetish videos, pedophilia, and other things. I should note that many of the channels existed for years, dating back to 2014, and it wasn't until November 2017 that YouTube did something about it, and only after Joe Rogan, B.o.B., and the New York Times started ringing the alarm bell.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "Anyone who thinks that sort of thing is official is stupid and deserves to be laughed at, don't punish us for their actions." But the fact is, people can be fooled, even those that know just about everything. Longtime fans are aware of the Sailor Moon fan game I made for the Atari 2600. I put it on a cart to get as many signatures on it as possible. And every convention I've gone to, there has been at least one person who sees me with the game and box and flips out, wondering what it is, where I got it, and how did they not know it existed. And these are people who can practically recite the entire production timeline of Sailor Moon, people who are constantly on the lookout for bootleg merch to get it stopped. It should be a no-brainer, but what I came up with so shocks and amazes them that they lose the plot and think it's real. Doesn't matter how knowledgable they are, people can still be fooled.

No, not all fans will think of making questionable and disturbing projects, they just want to play in the sandbox for a little while, and put the toys back the way they found them. But lots of them don't. And we see companies ceding control of their properties to the fandom and the problems it can cause. One need look no further than the My Little Pony -- Friendship Is Magic fandom for proof of this. The show has actually either canonized or suggested things are canon that the fandom has been promoting for years, from character relationships to their personalities. Even the overall narrative is no longer concerned with Twilight Sparkle learning about life and friendship and slice-of-life events, but examining and furthering it's own mythos. The show is significantly different from Faust's original creation (for example, Rarity is no longer an artistic diva, she's now just an arrogant bitch). This is a depiction found frequently in fanfics (its even worse in the IDW comic, which seems to go out of its way to favor fanon over the official source material). It has created an insular fandom that is easy to sell to, but a general audience is left out because, well, that wasn't what they were watching the show for.

So what happens? We've already seen how people love to write and read slashfic, as sites like and WWoEC attest. What if someone decides to make, say, a fetish film but use the "non-profit fan work" as a shield? At the moment, the state of copyright laws keeps such things to the fringes, where such things have to be distanced from the source material in order to exist. But creating an exception for non-profit fan works can lead to a lot of questionable material, and we've seen time and again that fan material can take on a life of its own and overshadow the original. Leaving rights holders having to explain that this isn't part of the official canon instead of the creators of the fan work explaining it isn't official shifts the burden unfairly.

Would I like to see companies be more lenient and accepting of fan works? Sure. But the changes people are demanding to copyright law aren't the way to do it. The law needs to exist for the protection of all, not the protection of some at the expense of others. Is it sad that CBS/Paramount shut down Stage Nine? Sure. But once again, they had every right to. As Carl Spackler says in Caddyshack, "We can do that....we don't even have to have a reason..." But they owe us no explanation, they owe us no allowance to make things in the first place. Bad as that is, the alternative is worse. No matter how warped you think humanity is, it's always worse than you think.
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