Copyright Shmopyright and 90s Kids’ Lust for Nickelodeon Nostalgia

If the events of the last 15 years have taught us anything, it’s that young people in particular, really don’t give a damn about copyright. What it stands for, why it exists, and the purpose it serves are so lost on the youth that they often act as if it isn’t even real. Unfortunately for one upstart streaming website, the corporate parent of Nickelodeon begged to differ, and wasn’t afraid to sue to remind them either.

Original Nickelodeon logo

It’s always satisfying to see someone get what they deserve; be it the bad guys in a film, the poor deluded fools who enter the Shark Tank convinced they have it all figured out, or that guy who thought Spongebob Squarepants was a ripoff of his idea and claimed he needed $1.6 billion to get over the anguish. Yup, sometimes it sure is fun to see people who should know better get their comeuppance.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the yellow sponge is currently at the centre of another legal battle. Last week Nickelodeon’s parent company Viacom filed a lawsuit against hiterto unknown website Nick Reboot. Pulling no punches, they alleged that the website operated “willfully, maliciously and with wanton disregard” and violated tradeworks “by creating the false and misleading impression that Defendants’ pirated Viacom Works are produced, distributed, endorsed, sponsored, approved, or licensed.”

What did Nick Reboot do? It basically offered an alternative broadcast feed stuffed to the gills with older, classic Nickelodeon shows in addition to an on-demand service. For the low low price of $35.99 a year, it was a steal; no pun intended.

The site is toast now; the operators bowing to some undoubtedly strong words and/or quality legal advice from their lawyers. They must have had a profitable business going or they wouldn’t have been around for the couple of years that they apparently were.

Plenty of people are no doubt glee with delight at the news, satisfied that the system worked and another filthy ‘pirate’ was lucky to be treated so benevolently given their misdeeds. The entire affair masks many complicated problems though, and the end result is that not a single one has been satisfactorily resolved.

Access Rules

Ever since Napster upended the music industry, access has been prized above all else. File sharing didn’t start to decline until Spotify made it irrelevant. Fifteen years later, the video industry still hasn’t quite got that memo.

Old, classic shows remain locked in vaults real and imaginary, and even when shows do get out, the result is rarely ideal. The arrival of blu-ray so soon after DVD shut down many releases of library titles. On-demand production sort of helped, but for more niche shows like My Life as a Teenage Robot, the wait required supreme patience. For other shows that weren’t so lucky, I’m sure not alone in having more than one incomplete collection.

Nick Reboot offered an on-demand service before Viacom did. They got the shows out there and seemingly did it well enough to attract a decent amount of users. They offered the access that people craved, and were willing to pay for given the clear absence of a legal alternative. Oh those do exist you say? Well, none of the three services I subscribe to carry all the shows all of the time. Nick Reboot on the other hand…

Copyright Shmopyright

“But they weren’t their shows to sell”

So? Young people today don’t particular care for ‘ownership’ when it comes to media; and that applies to both sides of the consumer fence. As long as they can access it (see above), who actually owns the content is completely irrelevant.

As for copyright? Anyone born since the year 2000, even before, will struggle with what copyright means. They watch everything online through instant access. What do you mean there’s a legal process in place to restrict someone’s ability to do what they want with the content? YouTube took the concept of copyright in visual media and flushed it straight down the toilet.

Young people don’t even understand how copyright is used. They want everyone to see their stuff. To them, success is numbers, and in order to get numbers, you need eyeballs. Suffice to say, you’ll have a hard time acquiring eyeballs if you need to negotiate the rights to broadcast to them. Huh? Oh yeah, copyright initiated the practise of broadcasting rights. The internet broke down national borders too, another convenient tool that copyright exploits to survive.

Nick Reboot simply ignored the concept. They had the content in some shape or form, and by hook or by crook, they were going to make sure it got out there for all to see. The hardest part was paying for the bandwidth, which is where the subscription fee comes from.

Interestingly, they weren’t completely ignorant of copyright, utilising that talisman of absolution, the fair use clause:

“Nick reboot exists solely to provide a medium for commentary, criticism, educational review, and research of Nickelodeon as it was during that time period. Nick reboot operates strictly under certain provisions listed in the doctrine of ‘fair use’ as codified in section 107 of the copyright law, and monitors the status of related industry legislation such as Bill S.978 (pending) for compliance.”

You see this or some variation of it under just about every video posted by someone who isn’t the copyright owner. They plead no guilt, feign no intent, and assert that the copyright holders retain their ownership. In their minds, they are simply stepping up to solve a need they perceive, and doing the work of someone else who will not or cannot do it themselves. Since copyright has become divorced from the physical realm from which it originated, such individuals (correctly) observe that by posting something that isn’t theirs online, they in no way preclude the actual owner from doing the same, and should therefore be exempt from the same rules as those burning unauthorised DVDs and flogging them down at your local flea market.

The Drug of Nostalgia

Such viewpoints are especially powerful when it comes to older content. In 2015, everything is on the internet. It’s like the infamous Rule 34 and it’s associated neighbour, Rule 35. Everything can be found online, and if it isn’t, somebody somewhere will provide it if you don’t do so yourself.

Disney may have their vault, but many old, and in some cases forgotten, kids shows followed the classic pattern of being broadcast, rerun into eternity, then slowly fading into memory. It was like that way for decades until first VHS, then DVD, brought about a roaring business in nostalgia. Kids weren’t buying them either, it was adults who were buying for themselves.

Who doesn’t want to see their childhood favourites again? Sure they may look utterly deplorable now, but they evoke warm fuzzy feelings that remind you of happier, simpler times before health insurance, rent, and idiotic rush hour drivers. Maybe you’ve got kids yourself and now you have the perfect excuse to spend time with them and see their faces light up as they experience the same sense of wonder you did as a kid.

Or you don’t, because your favourite shows aren’t available on DVD or streaming sites. So off to the internet you go, and lo and behold, here’s a website with all the classic Nickelodeon shows for less than Netflix. You’d be a fool not to sign up! Even young people barely out of Nicklodeon’s demographics don’t care. The only thing that 90s kids see is their favourite shows vanishing and no way to watch them except an unofficial service that actually broadcasts them. Check Twitter for mentions of Nick Reboot, and what you’ll find is extremely similar to the tweet below:

The Mistakes Media Men Make

The thing is, media executives tend to forget that the mechanisms by which content is produced, distributed and exploited are far beyond the grasp of Joe and Jane Public. They see access to the content for a reasonable price and they grasp it with both hands. Nobody does their homework. It’s why the Pirate Bay was so popular; you want it, we got it.

Library titles used to have a valuable life in syndication. They could be sold off to a third party who milked money out of them by throwing them on a kids block. Niche cable channels took up the mantle, but now that the audience has fragmented into oblivion, so even they are not as viable as they once were.

It’s why Turner screwed up with their relaunch of Boomerang. They gave it a makeover, and promised new content in addition to a greater reach. In return the audience got advertising; how grateful they should be. The channels declining numbers should have been an indication, but no, someone perceived it as an image problem, and set out to prove themselves right. As I wrote at the time, the brand was perfect for an innovative new OTT service that offered all Turner’s classic animation titles for a relatively low monthly fee.

Nickelodeon are about to launch their own OTT service (better late than never), but it’s not as cheap as it should be, or rather, it isn’t tiered to offer access to just the new stuff, the old stuff, or both. Mainstream media is proclaiming how innovative and forward-thinking the new service is, but in reality, it’s two years behind the curve and offers no new way of distributing content or exploiting its value.

Conclusion

Viacom were correct to defend their trademarks against an infringer like Nick Reboot, but they are dealing with a maelstrom of factors that will prolong their struggles. The nostalgia for their old shows will always trump their copyrights, even more so as current viewers grow up in a world where the internet provides for all, and has always existed. Young people are circumventing the old ways and care little for the reasons why they’re wrong. Perhaps instead of litigating young people, media companies should instead be partnering with them and using their innovations as a guide to where things are headed.

4 Comments on “Copyright Shmopyright and 90s Kids’ Lust for Nickelodeon Nostalgia

  1. “Young people are circumventing the old ways and care little for the reasons why they’re wrong.”

    Which is the largest issue of all the issues. You can fight until you are bloody and half-dead with a spear through your shoulder, but so long as someone doesn’t think they’re wrong it will never be a battle won. Yet still we fight, trying to somehow “prove” to the people who disagree with us that our way is better or more righteous. Not going to happen through fighting. As you said, partnering may work because then they have a dog in the race. Beyond that nothing short of a miraculous change of the heart will cease this sort of behavior (or any behavior, really).

    The alternative is unreasonable punishment, of course. You cut the hands off thieves in public and a lot less thieves feel the desire to thieve. However, again, it doesn’t change the people, it only makes them hide their nature. The nature is what needs changed if there’s every hope for real change. Not impossible, but dang hard.

    I don’t pirate things anymore, but did when I was younger and cared more about myself than others. It was easy and I had a bucket full of reasons why I wasn’t hurting anyone, or – better and more ridiculous still – I was hurting the people who DESERVED it. As you mention in your opening paragraph, seeing justice to “the bad guys” is a fun time. Except when you are the bad guy, as we all are at some point or some perspective. Then life is unfair. At any rate, I would love to see my favorites from years gone by, and do purchase Disney Afternoon DVDs now and then so I can get a Rescue Rangers or Darkwing fix. They have lost some charm since my youth, but I still enjoy them.

    It’s a shame there’s no “Cartoon Network at Nite” like the old Nick-at-Nite days when they would only play classics. I watched more than my fair share of I Love Lucy and Dick Van Dyke in those days, and I have a feeling if such thing was on TV for Hey Arnold and Doug I would be happy to watch again. Sadly instead we have yet another channel showing reality TV. Oh well. Gives me more time to write and animate, I guess! 😛

    • “Arnold and Doug”, Ren and Stimpy,too, obviously. They were screwed up the most, considering that they PUT Nicktoons on the map.

  2. Of all the big media conglomerates in Hollywood, it’s really unfortunate that the last bastions of television animation are in the hands of the ones who arguably hold up progress the most. Time Warner’s CEO has notably gone on record as not trusting Netflix, belittling it as “Albania taking over the world,” while at the same time saying that Game of Thrones’ distinction as the most pirated show is “better than an Emmy”. Similarly, Nickelodeon has had this sort of infamy in animation fan circles for its executive culture, fraught with waste and poor decisions, and notably out of touch with its fanbase.

    It’s almost beyond reason to persuade Nickelodeon to be a technological innovator, when they’ve spent the last 16 or so years trying to get another SpongeBob and looking in all the wrong places, ruining any sense of variety their programming schedule seemed to have, screwing over Korra, and most egregiously sitting on vast reserves of unseen programming, including many lost/unaired episodes.

    It’s only when a fire is lit under their asses, like with Reboot (which even I, who am not 100% on board with copyright as-is, know is a flagrant violation of said laws), that Nickelodeon will be moved to do something. Most companies then realize that this will only continue until they make it easier for people to legally view their content. They can try to punish copyright violations all they want, but in the end, they are outnumbered by those who will punish their own greed, and it’s the admission that their old business models are being challenged that will be rewarded greatly.

  3. While I agree that intellectual property needs to be protected, I believe our existing copyright laws are crushing. I’m afraid to post or share anything related to movies, TV shows, etc. I enjoy because it could violate copyright; and when you do include such a notice, it has to be done in a certain way. Anyone who goes to a site like YouTube, deviantArt, or Nick Reboot knows that Viacom owns the copyrights to those shows. I don’t understand how sharing videos of them or creating a derivative fan work constitutes a claim to ownership unless you explicitly make one (which I do NOT support.) Fan labor and websites like that provide an important outlet for fans to express themselves, and as long as you don’t claim the original work for yourself, I don’t see how it violates intellectual property rights.

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