It's an interesting idea, but it takes such efforts out of the realm of fan production, making them more akin to independent contractors. Would a studio license out its intellectual property if the money was right? Could a franchise survive an avalanche of sub-direct-to-DVD product if people were asked to pay for it? Perhaps, but if money is involved, then they’re pro productions, regardless of how qualified the cast and crew may or may not be. Professional work is measured on a very different scale by studios and viewers (not to mention unions), so if someone holding the purse strings is saying ‘no,’ they likely have their reasons, whether it’s that the franchise is too valuable, or that even high-end amateur work just isn’t pro enough.
Not that many studios threaten to sue anymore, although it does happen from time to time. Lucasfilm fired off a Cease and Desist order to The Dark Redemption in 1999, so you won't see them buying that one any time soon! Meanwhile, Shane Felux, who made Revelations in 2005, won the Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge the following year when he made Pitching Lucas; the result of that is that Lucasfilm owns the rights to it for the next 10 years--it's part of the contract that all nominees in the contest have to sign.
You can read about both these stories in-depth in my upcoming fan film book, Homemade Hollywood, which incidentally, goes into the topic of whether studios should buy or license fan works as well (to be honest, that first paragraph at the top of my reply was cut-and-pasted direct from my manuscript!)
I am not sure that it would move these productions from the realm of Fan Works to the realm of professional work. What I am proposing is a reinvention of both the models of Production and the relationship of copyright to fandom.
Toward A Creative Commons Franchise
If a writer or company truly wanted to leverage their fanbase, they would license their content under a Creavite Commons or similar license. Such a license would spell out in simple, human readable terms what the fans are allowed to do with the copyrighted work(s) in question. For my books, I use a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. This means others may modify my works so long as they give me attribution, share the work under the same license, and do so in a noncommercial way.
Licenses like this are important for both the copyright holders and the fans. What would this offer the copyright holder?
- They empower their fans to give them free promotion through derivative fan works.
- They allow their fanbase to become more involved with their property which will allow they to become more involved and deeper connected to the original work.
- By allowing their fans to produce derivative works, they are able to fill in the gaps between releases at no cost to them.
- They increase their footprint which will help them to convert more casual readers/viewers into fans. An increased fanbase will increase sales.
- With fans providing them free advertising, they will be able to focus their efforts more on content than marketing.
Fans would benefit from this approach nearly as much as the copyright holder.
Star Trek and Fandom
After Star Trek was canceled in 1969, Gene Roddenberry allowed fanfiction to thrive. In reality, he probably saw no future for the series, and saw no reason to enforce his copyright, but whatever his reasons, the flowering of fanfiction reinforced the love fans felt for the series. It also kept these fans activated until the animated series premiered in 1973, and again from the end of the animated series in 1974 until the first movie in 1979.
Fanfiction filled the gaps between releases of official content, and played a large roll in growing the fanbase of the series so the movies and subsequent series were even possible. Fanfiction continued to serve this function until the death of Gene Roddenberry in 1991. In the years following his death, the studio reminded fans what precarious footing they had as Paramount began sueing fan publications and fan sites for copyright infringement. I know many people who were sued for simply continuing activities they had been allowed under the gentleman's agreement.
As a result of these prosecutions, and the decreasing quality of the show as it suffered from a lack of vision and leadership in the absence of Roddenberry, the fanbase began to dissolve. Ratings fell, and attendance in the theaters fell with it.
The Status Quo
Now, all fanfilm and fanfiction exist with this same legal sword of Damoclese hanging over them. New gentleman's agreements have been brokered, or studios have simply stopped suing over fans' infringement of copyright, but there is nothing ensuring that they will not begin again.
As Clive pointed out, "Lucasfilm fired off a Cease and Desist order to The Dark Redemption in 1999, so you won't see them buying that one any time soon! Meanwhile, Shane Felux, who made Revelations in 2005..." What is stopping them from sending out the Cease and Desist orders again? Nothing but the feeling that it is presently not in their best interests.
The Moral Argument
The financial argument for adopting Creative Commons or similar licenses are clear, but I think there is also a moral argument as well. In my post, Fanfiction and Culture, I take the creative commons argument to its extreme:
Most of what we consider classics today were written by people who wrote in a setting they did not create with characters created by others, in other words, FANFICTION! All primal storytelling is fanfiction, telling retelling, embellishing and adding to that characters and setting that the storyteller enjoyed. This is the art of a story teller. Virtually every folktale and myth falls into this category (read the rest here).
This is the cultural cycle stories used to flow through. What enrages me most about popular media is how often they use terms like myth, mythology, mythos, legend, and saga to describe their works, while simultaneously keeping them from entering the cultural cycle real myths do.
Copyright holder have a responsibility to culture to allow their ideas to follow the natural flow tales historically took and Creative Commons is a way for them to do this while maintaining their right to be the sole content creator allowed to make money off their ideas.
Creative Commons and the Fan Economy
What I proposed in "Dream of a Fan Economy" was that copyright holders should either purchase or license the best fanfilms and fanfiction and release it in a way so that both the original copyright holder and the producer of the fan work can both profit.
It is too easy for any franchise to become bogged down by group think, and if they infused fresh ideas from the fan community into their official releases they could discover new avenues they had never realized were their before. Many franchises utilize rooms full of writers to crank out content for them. It is strange to me that any company would turn down any possible source of revenue.
Dream vs Reality
I am not as naive as I might sound right now. I do not expect any established franchise to adopt the model I am proposing, but that does not mean that I do not see it as something future franchises might use.
I put my money where my mouth is. My books, Liquid Sky and Shine Like Thunder are both released under just such a license, and I know if I saw a fan work I loved I would try to bring it into the fold to reward its producer for their great work.
As media becomes increasingly fractured, new business models have to rise up to fill the void left behind by the failing studios and publishers of today. I am not sure this is exactly the right model, but it is a proposal in the right direction.
I am curious what you think. How could a copyright holder set up a viable, symbiotic relationship with their fans? We need to find a path ourselves, because the big boys are not even looking. Before you comment, read Clive's brilliant piece at Fan Cinema Today in response to my previous post