The Creative Commons Conundrum

Copyright is a concept that has, and continues to, perplex many people. The concept of Creative Commons is designed to help address many issues surrounding copyright that are often ignored to the peril of legal liability. In this new media landscape, where can Creative Commons fit into the animation industry and how can it do so while maintaining revenue sources.

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Ignorance of Copyright

Any quick perusal of the internet today quickly uncovers plenty of copyrighted images, films and text. Some is, of course, properly licensed and available, but the vast majority is not. A visit to any tumblelog will prove that in an instant.

Why is that though? Do people willingly break the law? Only a minority, for everyone else, the requirement that permission is obtained prior to any use is simply too cumbersome, time-consuming and pointless  when all you want to to is post a GIF of Steamboat Willie.

This mass disobedience when it comes to copyright is largely tolerated because of its promotional benefits. Heck, ads on Tumblr are designed to be reblogged and spread around that ecosystem even though they are under copyright.

So why does copyright continue to enjoy a dependable place in content; not so much from established players, but new ones and independents? Is it simply because it is assumed practise or is it because many people cannot see any benefits to using a different method?

In the Creative Commons Corner…

Creative Commons is an established method for releasing works of creative art into the world without having to worry about the many legal implications that come with copyright. For example, copyright requires rights holders to police and defend their rights; that could get awfully expensive unless you’re a lawyer.

The impetus for this post is that many animated web series, shows and films are put out online with just the standard copyright clause tagged on at the end. Little reason is given as to why and for many creators, it offers little real protection save for scaring away potential thieves with the implicit threat of prosecution.

My hypothesis is that animated content (web, episode or feature) could be released under a Creative Commons license without any risk to its commercial prospects. Many questions remain, but they are easily resolved or mitigated against if care is taken by the creator to begin with.

The various licenses offer degrees of freedom to the individual. For example, some restrict the use of content for commercial purposes. Others require attribution to the original creator and others require that any work created as a result of the original only be released under the same license.

To a certain extent, a CC license will not create any changes to the way many animated shows are already released. Content is already remixed and altered on a large scale and that counts double if it is an internet original. Using a Creative Commons license would simply make the ability to remix and alter without permission official rather than illegal.

Merchandise

They also don’t prohibit anyone from making money off merchandise either. Now this is where things get tricky because the creator cannot, by virtue of the CC licenses, demand money from anyone selling merchandise based on remixed art. There may be trademark issues, but those can be mitigated easily.

How? Quite simply, give the remixed merch the official seal of approval! If online stores like Threadless can prove with their contests, it’s that it isn’t the creation and selling of derivative works that is the problem insofar as the knock-on effects to the trademarks covering it.

Creators can cover themselves by simply requesting that any remixed merchandise have official backing. The goal would be to make the official version desirable. In other words, remixers would need strong incentives to achieve an official stamp. That could be charged for itself, but simply doing that and letting the market vote on quality is better. Creators can then haggle for a cut of any sales; possibly on a sliding scale depending on volume.

All this can be done without infringing anyone’s right, which of course is the whole point; greasing the wheels of commerce!

A Caveat

While there is nothing completely perfect in existence just yet, Frederator have a semi-similar system in place. They engage with fans, sell unique merchandise created by fans and freely permit fans to remix and alter many of their cartoons. They do, however, use traditional copyright for all their work; although as Fred Seibert lays out in this post, it’s not without reason.

Creative Commons is sometimes seen as a cure-all for any copyright blues, but that is not the case. Neither is it a quick-fix for the problem of theft or willful infringement. That said, it also doesn’t guarantee any financial payments to creators, but then, traditional copyright doesn’t either.

Overall, Creative Commons can provide a solid foundation on which to release content, it just requires preparation and action on the part of the creator.

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