Entitlement and Derivative Works

I have seen some discussions recently about Eric Von Websnark‘s suggestion that For Better or For Worse fans appropriate and repurpose the comic. There are some very interesting (and heated) comments going on over at that post, so people should check those out, but I want to talk about entitlement and derivative works.

Some commentators were accusing Eric of falling prey to a bad case of fandom entitlement. Eric defended himself by saying, effectively, that entitlement is different than appropriation.

I’m gonna come down on the same side as Mr. Burns, both in the detail (whether he has gone afoul of entitlement) and on the big issue (whether the sort of project he suggests has merit), but as the debate about whether the right word is used to describe the presumption of such a suggestion is uninteresting, so I’m mostly going to talk about the latter.

What I think about IP: The single biggest difference between intellectual property and actual property is scarcity. By that I mean, specifically, if I steal a chair, I now have a chair that someone else used to have, and they no longer have that chair. There are multiple things that we describe as theft in the realm of intellectual property. Filesharing/piracy is one, which I won’t get into. Another is theft of ideas/jokes/etc. That is, another artist/creator using material that they took from an existing source. Note the difference though. If I make a Dungeons and Dragons comic, ripping off a joke from Order of the Stick (to pick a random comic), the joke is still in Order of the Stick. No one is missing a joke that they once possessed. Is stealing jokes from Rich Burlew a good thing? No. It is dishonest, because I portray myself as the author, and it is, or at least can be, disrespectful to the creator whose work I ripped off.

There is some something scarce in the field of IP though: talent. By scarce here I just mean that not everyone is talented, and talent is what introduces additional value by way of generating new intellectual property. Tangentially, this informs a lot of my opinions of how copyright should work, but that is a matter for another time.

Let’s talk about value, not in the dollars and cents mode, but in the “that piece of artwork has aesthetic/cultural/popular/entertainment value” mode. Imagine two people are given the same set of characters and plot to write a story about. One of them might write a crappy story, while the other writes a good story. They might both write decent stories, which explore different elements of the plot. A lot of things could happen. But, one thing we do know is that the presence of quality in the story one author creates from a certain set of elements doesn’t prevent there from being quality in the way another author arranges those same elements.

One thing to consider, if you are up in arms about the FBOFW idea, is whether or not you take issue with the book “Grendel” or for a more pop-culture version of this reference, the musical “Wicked.” Both are retellings of another person’s story. If there is nothing in principle wrong with creating a derivative work, then the objection to doing so for FBOFW is something like the fact that the creator is still alive or that copyright law gets in the way, or something like that.

Nothing Eric Burns suggested precludes Lynn Johnston from writing the story she wants to write. Nothing Eric Burns suggested subtracts value from Lynn Johnston’s work. Eric sees a different story that he wants told, using many of the elements of her work (or elements quite similar). While I am not arguing about whether copyright law does in fact prohibit his plan (I am not an expert on copyright law), most people who are upset with the idea don’t seem to be worried about the legal question.

If the question is whether it is somehow a violation of Lynn Johnston’s natural right to do whatever she wants to her own characters, keep in mind that Lynn Johnston may still do whatever she wants to her own characters.

As to the issue of disrespect, which I noted when mentioning the idea of joke theft, I don’t know how disrespectful it is to say, “we would like to tell your story another way.” Maybe the tone of the suggestion is more, “You are screwing up your story, we want to tell it better.” In which case, it may be disrespectful, but not that much more so than someone just saying that think the story is being told poorly.

My point is that, regardless of whether Burns & co. tell a story that is better, worse, or just as good as the one Johnston is telling, doesn’t seem to be relevant to the fact that they want a different story, and are willing to tell it themselves. Maybe we need to have copyright laws that prevent that for some reason (though I highly doubt it), but again, the empassioned concerns are not legal ones, they seem to be about morality or respect, and I’m not seeing how this plan is immoral or disrespectful.

I said I sided with Burns, and by that I didn’t mean that I think his story will be better than Johnston’s. He wants to tell a story, and in the end, I think that more stories are better than fewer stories. His story will appeal to different people than Johnston’s. But even if it didn’t, there’s nothing stopping them from reading both. So, assuming there is someway around the legal issues, I say, full steam ahead. Go ahead and tell the story.



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