Take a break and read this comic book

A piece in Wired pointed me to this amazing comic (created by three IP lawyers at the Center for the Study of the Public Domain) about copyright, fair use, and the public domain.  The comic book tells the fictional story of Akiko, a documentary filmmaker struggling to understand the legal minefield of intellectual property.

I strongly recommend this for anyone who wants to learn more about how our current copyright practices are strangling our creative practices.

Throughout the book, the authors describe filmmakers paying exorbitant licensing fees or being sued for incidental use of copyrighted material. Two anecdotes that stuck out for me:

  • When John Else was filming “Sing Faster” he ended up having to edit a scene in which “The Simpons” was playing for 4 1/2 seconds on a TV in the background (unrelated to the main action of the scene, but still an important part of the setting). Fox demanded $10,000 for the use of the footage, so Else took it out.
  • During the filming of “Mad Hot Ballroom,” a cell phone went off during filming and the ring tone was of the “Rocky” theme song. EMI demanded $10,000 for the use of the clip.

What’s interesting is that in both of these cases it wasn’t the artist demanding (or receiving) the licensing fee (Matt Groening, in fact, didn’t care about the use of the Simpsons clip).

It’s hard not to feel like this all comes down to greed–mostly on the part of record labels and movie studios. It seems to me that if these groups are best at “talking money” then they should have to demonstrate some kind of monetary loss by the use. Including 4 1/2 seconds of a Simpsons episode in a documentary doesn’t translate into monetary loss.

If it’s not the money they care about, and they really are concerned about fair use of artistic content, then they should be able to demonstrate some kind of creative abuse. Again and again, the examples given in the book are of such short, incidental uses of material that I simply can’t see how the argument for creative abuse can be made.

In the end, the characters describe a new kind of “cultural environmentalism” in which we exercise “sustainable development” in the world of copyright.