The character of spiderman was created in 1961 by Stan Lee. Had the copyright and intellectual property rights laws of the era not been changed then Spider man would have become a public domain character in January of this year(2019), meaning anyone could create stories, movies and any other works about him. This holds a deep irony at the time of writing Disney, a company responsible more than any other for the extension and ballooning of intellectual property rights is being denied the use of the character because of the complicated web of ownership over the character’s movie rights.
Even before the spiderman news came about, An odd bit of synchronicity kicked off a train of thought in me about The changing nature of storytelling. Two small items appeared close together in my news feed that both dealt with storytelling involving Characters owned by other people.
The first item was the news that the fan-fiction website https://archiveofourown.org/ (AO3) has won a Hugo award. Not a single story, but the entire website as a body of work. Anyone who has published a story to the site is now the author of Hugo award winning fiction. This is a great step at legitimizing fan-fiction as a genre. Often the butt of jokes due to the varying quality, it is also were a lot of today’s best writers cut their teeth and honed their craft as they grew. There are some amazing stories, all using, remixing and re-imagining existing properties.
The second item in my browsing was this video on the nature of the fan created works around the Simpsons. I highly recommend it be given a watch, as it quickly departs from the usual video essay complaint about how soulless the Simpsons has become, and dives into a much deeper topic of the rich and varied world of people making art expanding on the Simpsons.
Both touch on the idea of Fan works pushing characters beyond the limitation being a controlled, for profit franchise imposes on them.
Who owns our stories?
The idea that characters are “owned” that stories and worlds are fenced off behind legal entitlements is a very new idea in the grand perspective of human history. For countless millennia the heroes, monsters, villains and cosmologies were all communally created oral stories, changing and morphing with each re-telling. Some societies had dedicated storytellers, such as Bards who acted as official keepers of stories, but they never owned them. Yet if you ask people today, the idea that characters have owners seems an obvious and normal idea. They will tell you if they are a marvel or a DC character, or Disney princess, or from the wizarding world of JK Rowling. A society’s myths and folk tales act as its DNA. Imparting and repeating its values and lessons. It’s for this reason the increasingly tight grip fewer and fewer entities have on our popular media is extremely worrying. Copyright has been used as a way to enclose on our collective mental commons and control our shared cultural touchstones.
The idea of copyright was created only in the 1700‘s for printing industry, and much has been argued about whether it is necessary to help authors make a living or if it strangles potential creativity. I fall somewhere in the middle. So long as storytellers need to earn a living, then they should be able to make a living off their art. However I don’t feel like the rights should carry on too long after the authors death. Currently in the UK, works enter the public domain 70 years after the authors death. I feel like this is too long and I would prefer to see it brought down to about 25 years.
Characters in the public Domain have proven themselves to have a huge popularity after they fell out of copyright and many are still lucrative. Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, the phantom of the opera, Frankenstein, and the entire HP Lovecraft mythos all have been staples of our media decades, some even past a century, to say nothing of the Ancient Greek and Norse mythological figures who still get adapted for modern books and films constantly.
But could such character’s work or thrive in the modern era of media if they didn’t go through a period of being grown under copyright? Well characters already have. Most people have heard of the Slenderman. This character was essentially a modern mythology. A Digital folk character, all developed communally on the website SDP along with many other horror characters. There have been stories, novels, and now even a Hollywood movie using the character. Indeed SDP is an amazing resource for horror stories in general and a perfect example of collective story telling in the public domain.
Who’s fictions? Our fictions!
This leads me on to my point: what if instead of waiting for characters to enter the public domain, we create our own that are free to use from the start. Open source characters and worlds we can communally use?
Well people have Already started this in some genres. Back in 2002 the first officially open source super hero, named Jenny Everywhere, was created by Steven Wintle and since then, the character has appeared in many written stories, webcomics, webseries and even her own mini movie on youtube.
There is now a whole wiki full of open source super heroes for anyone to use in their works, providing they at some point display “the paragraph” stating said character is free to use by any creator.
I would love to see the practice of creating and using open source fiction properties commonplace. Not only Characters but also worlds and settings, for every Genre. Scif adventures, fantasy worlds, Romance heroins all there for people to use and contribute too. So I will say this to anyone reading this; go do it. If you are creative, if you have an idea for a person or place, why not publish it under open source? If you like writing fan-fiction or your own creative writing, why not look into open source characters to use for your next project? With so many of our cultures stories now ring-fenced away by the legal system, and under the control of monolithic corporations, it is now more important than ever to revive the art of communal storytelling.