Yes, “I.P. Freely” is one of those names immortalized alongside compatriots such as “Ben Dover” and “Hugh Jass”. But I’m not bringing it up in prep for a prank phone call; I want to talk IP in its current sense of Intellectual Property. IP is a big deal in our current day and age, because it has the potential to make big money. It’s the stuff copyright and trademark lawsuits are made of. This very site has copyright notices plastered on it to inform that Zombie Ranch and its associated characters and trademarks and blah blah blah are property of Clint and Dawn Wolf. All Rights Reserved. I’ve turned down at least two requests to make a film based on Zombie Ranch because of the legal fustercluck that grant of permission could lead to were there ever more formalized interest down the road. I’ve decried in this very blog the existence of contests which require surrendering IP rights as a condition of winning, or in some very crazy cases, even entering them.
So, uh, this next bit is probably gonna sound weird.
I think IP as we know it is dying. Or at least the business model based on hoarding it is.
Don’t get me wrong, I still fully believe artists should benefit financially from their creative work, myself included. Mind you Dawn and I don’t benefit all that much so far, but the thought is certainly there that if someone were to start mass marketing Popcorn plushies, well, yes, we’d like to get some money out of that. But let’s haul this away from the mom n’ pop small fry operations with living, breathing artists involved, I’m talking big time. I’m talking the big corporate entities that exist to profit off of the intellectual rights to properties such as Mickey Mouse or Superman or Barbie. The ones who are throwing around the Cease & Desists and DMCA takedown notices and other legal actions when they find an unauthorized, unlicensed entity attempting to get a cut of the pie, no matter how small.
Now it’s understandable in the sense that if you don’t defend a trademark (for instance) you can lose it, as the Metropolitan Police famously discovered in their losing battle vs. Doctor Who. But it seems like more and more there are instances of IP crackdowns like the Jayne hat controversy where the litigants may be legally on solid ground, but rather murky, weedy, boot-sucking ground from a public relations standpoint. These aren’t seedy Taiwanese knock-offs being produced in sweatshops, they’re labors of love from the very fans who made your IP valuable in the first place, in some cases like Firefly, an IP that the corporation didn’t really seem to give a crap about. Perception here was a merchandising void that the fans filled, and once money started being made off it, the neglectful rights holder stepped in and started whacking everyone with the C&D stick. Disgruntlement ensued.
But what’s the alternative? Let everyone run willy nilly and profit off your hard won creativity? Well, let’s leave aside that copyright law is a tad out of control these days to the point where in many of these cases the actual creative person in question is long dead and the argument could be made that the people currently profiting have no more right to do so than the rest of the public. We shan’t get into that right now. Let’s just speak of practical matters.
The Internet exists.
Even more importantly now, the 3-D printer exists.
Now maybe not every home has a 3-D printer yet, but that day will come. And they’re going to go on the Internet and find schematics and customize them and oh heck why am I even speculating? It’s already happening.
This is a genie that is now out of its bottle, folks. More and more, fans who find themselves dissatisfied by the current merchandise offerings of a company are going to take matters into their own hands. Maybe they’ll try to sell the end products and maybe they won’t, but trying to hold back the tide will be like, well, holding back the tide — with a flyswatter.
So whither these corporations? Well, have you ever heard about how computer firms will hire hackers as security experts? This year Hasbro Toys put its finger to the wind and some bright bulb said, “Ladies and gents, here comes the storm. But don’t worry! I have an idea.”
There are other similar ideas emerging in places like the Everquest Next Landmark MMO, where the fanbase is empowered to create and market items to one another with the company providing the tools and serving as an enabler and broker for the transactions, but Hasbro’s Shapeways is the first I’ve heard of attempting to bring that model into the 3-D realm. And their Chief Marketing Officer made no mistake of the intent: “We are opening up our [intellectual property] and giving authors and designers an opportunity to create with us“.
Anyhow, I guess I’m calling it right here and now: I believe the big companies that are going to survive in the 21st Century are the ones like Hasbro that have decided to embrace and empower their fanbases rather than trying to police them as the enemy. There will be blood along the way, but the age of jealously protecting IPs is past, because sooner rather than later it’s just no longer going to be feasible to do so. If you’ve got 100 million fans, great! Make nice with them. Make them partners and fellow travelers, because otherwise? They’re going to end up as your competition, and hell hath no fury like a fanbase scorned.