Friday, June 3, 2011

The Copyright Lockup

While looking for something else on YouTube the other day, I noticed some vids by some other people on some other topic that raised my interest. The user in question had apparently for years been posting “reviews” of episodes of a popular sci-fi program, in which they used a small amount of footage from the episodes. They had done this freely for some time, but more recently, the sci-fi series had been purchased by a new owner, and this new owner frowned on the use of the material. As a result, YouTube apparently began removing the reviewer’s vids – compelling him to take them elsewhere, and prompting reply vids in which he and others objected in strong (and sometimes profane) terms to what they saw as YT’s cowardice and/or concern for making money.

I won’t be deciding here who has the better case. On the surface, the user seemed to have been within the rights of fair use, and the new owner of the series appeared to be using bullying tactics. That’s not unusual; different corporations and people have different views of how protective they want to be with their material. Some examples of excess:

Fuji TV, the owner of the original Iron Chef program, sent out cease and desist letters to a number of fan websites using video, pictorial, and audio clips from the series.

Paramount Pictures forced the removal of a vid someone took of the set of the next Transformers movie.

J. K. Rowling objected to fans who created a concordance-type work of her Harry Potter novels, and also went after a military newsletter that had printed a parody of her stories.

All of these are fairly obvious cases of owners ignoring the principles of fair use and using muscle to get their way – for of course, the average fan doesn’t have the resources to fight such matters in court. (The military does, and I wish they had, but they chose to cave in instead.)

Not all owners are like this. In particular, LucasFilm has been very open to the fair use of their material, especially in parody. I recently used a smattering of a LucasFilm musical piece from Raiders of the Lost Ark in one of my vids, and only did so after making a variety of checks (including with a media consult of mine, who has worked closely with LucasFilm in the past) to make sure it would pass muster. The results can be interesting at times: My vid opens with a “parody” title graphic which is reminiscent of, but not exactly like, the Raiders title logo. My consult declared it passable, precisely because it was like, but not TOO much like.

Even so: We do have some who, like FujiTV, choose to be aggressive, and I watch out for that. The results of THAT can also be interesting. FujiTV, for one, ended up alienating a lot of fans of Iron Chef, which in the end surely did more harm than good for their profits. (LucasFilm takes the opposite view and sees things like parodies as a way to increase their exposure and profit.) The above referenced users, well – the results there speak for themselves: The fans are now angry, and can’t understand why the new owner would want to squash something that can only be to their benefit.

It’s a tight rope to walk, to be sure. I don’t care much for people using my work, even briefly and within fair use boundaries, but I recognize that as my own problem and don’t press it unless I think fair use has devolved to unfair abuse – particularly if someone is just using my material to be lazy (as is the case with a user I referred to some time back who stole a news background image from a website and purposely obscured the website logo, or as in the case of “HonestTechnoAtheist,” who did nothing but crib my vid for his entire reply!). Perhaps the problem in such cases IS that people are lazy – they don’t appreciate how much work creators do, because after all, it is so easy for them to just lift a screenshot of that work. You work hours to paint a masterpiece, and all they do is point, click, and save. That hardly seems fair, even under fair use.

But then again, I don’t think FujiTV was all about caring for their craft so much as caring for their money. That’s the other side you can fall from while walking the tightrope. On the one hand, you want to discourage thieves. On the other hand, you don’t want to alienate those who admire your work.

Making it worse… it’s sometimes too hard to tell the difference between one and the other!


  1. Another concern for copyright is the possible use of the material for unauthorized gain/profit. Such is the case with the 501st Legion, which George Lucas recognizes, and of which I will soon be a member of. The 501st is allowed to use the likeness of Dark Side characters from the Star Wars universe provided that no monetary benefits are gained through such use. Of course, doing this for charity is allowed.

  2. Yep. I do have a lot more freedom as a non-profit than many out there would have. I do wonder about hobbyists though. I think use of other people's material so that you can stroke your own ego should be harshly punished. :D

  3. They're probably already punished monetarily.