Hollywood and Fan Creator culture – copyright isn’t as simple as pirates and police

sad youtubeI’ve always been a fan of the Addams Family, as such it isn’t surprising that I found Melissa Hunter‘s fanseries, “Adult Wednesday Addams” to be absolutely adorable.

So I was sad a few days ago when I found out it had been pulled. Speculation on the internet was  that it was brought down because of backlash over the cat-calling episode (which I really wish I could link to because it was absolutely brilliant, sadly, it is now gone).

This does not actually appear to be the case. Rather the issue is an entirely different one, and one which is much more complex than yet another blow in the ongoing culture war would have been.

When I heard about the copyright strike against Adult Wednesday Addams I immediately visited the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation, the rights-holder for the Addams Family, and the organization which had brought the copyright strike against Hunter’s series.

I located the contact information and wrote the following letter to them:

I’ve always been a fan of the Addams Family in pretty much every one of its iterations. And I was a huge fan of the Adult Wednesday Addams webseries, which was funny, intelligent and tonally in keeping with the character. As such, I’m distraught over the news that your foundation has forced its removal from Youtube.

While I understand that you are the copyright holder, and legally you are acting within your rights, I think in this case you are sorely mistaken to have taken this action.

I ask, as a fan, please do not obstruct this wonderful little webseries.


sincerely,

Simon McNeil

I didn’t expect any response, but I figured letter writing campaigns have been successful in the past, and the best way for them to be successful is for somebody to start writing letters.

However I was mistaken. A mere four hours after I wrote to the foundation, I received a response from Kevin Miserocchi, the Executive Director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

Here is what he said to me:

Dear Simon McNeil,

Thank you for your comments concerning Charles Addams and his Family and the suspension of Melissa Hunter’s on line series titled The Adult Wednesday Addams. Perhaps this will help to enlighten you about the situation that has caused this to happen rather than assuming we don’t care. Unfortunately for all involved it is not as simple as you may be thinking it is: The Moneyed Establishment versus The Artist – on the contrary.

We have a contract with MGM to produce a full-length animated feature film of The Addams Family® to look exactly as Charles Addams originally painted them. That contract prohibits anyone from portraying those characters in any media during the life of the contract.

Regardless of her talent or the breadth of her audience or the entertainment it gave you, the online series is a violation of that contract, something for which both Melissa Hunter and this Foundation could have been sued heavily. You can thank Melissa Hunter for not having understood the need to contact us so as to obtain a license to protect her show. Now it is too late and she will have to wait to resume her career as the Adult Wednesday Addams© until a year after the film has been released. Hopefully, she realizes that she already has an audience and merely needs to change the title of her show and her appearance.

With best regards,
H. Kevin Miserocchi, Executive Director

So what we have is instead what appears to be a pretty awful contract. Apparently, MGM has purchased an exclusive license to the Addams Family in all media. Furthermore, according to Mr. Miserocchi, the foundation is liable for enforcing copyright on behalf of the license holder (MGM) at risk of lawsuit.

That’s all rather odious.

Now I will note that the substantial snark in the last paragraph is not very nice; and comes off a bit disingenuous. If the contract is as strict as Miserocchi describes previously, it wouldn’t have mattered if Hunter had come to the Foundation first, they would have been required to say, “no.” And I rather doubt her webseries could provide sufficient revenue to beat out MGM if it came to a competitive bid. Whatever MGM paid the foundation for this license I’d suggest they invest some of that money into a PR coordinator because there would have been much more diplomatic ways to communicate the message above.

And here’s where things get complicated. Adult Wednesday Addams is a perfect example of a fanseries. It was created by a single person (or a very small team), it has a very limited cast, episodes are based on a straightforward simple premise, riffing on something the creator / star / director / writer obviously loves.

But videos on Youtube are monetized, and the Adult Wednesday Addams videos, based on the number of views they had before being taken down and the average payout for ad-views on Youtube, might have made as much as $13,770.

Now that’s not much money, but it’s not nothing. And it’s money made through the unlicensed use of a copyrighted piece of IP.

There are two main camps on this issue. On one hand, some people will say that copyright in this case is just established industry players cutting out small-scale creatives. Considering it’s posthumous IP (Charles Addams died in 1988) they’d probably argue for some flexibility. And besides, Adult Wednesday Addams wasn’t hurting anybody and certainly wasn’t stealing any bank from MGM.

The other camp would argue that what Hunter did was technically illegal, and that the Foundation acted both within their rights but also within their own best interest pulling the plug.

I come down somewhere in the middle. My personal opinion about copyright terms would, if it were magically converted into law, put the Addams Family in the public domain – just barely (I’m a proponent of lifetime + 20 years). And 13 grand (or less) is really not that much money. And honestly the Adult Wednesday Addams webseries wouldn’t be likely to impact MGM’s revenue in the slightest – the enforcement of such strict contract terms on the foundation by MGM seems a bit overreaching.

On the other hand, the state of the law in the United States is (very loosely speaking) lifetime + 70 years, and Adult Wednesday Addams was a potentially revenue-generating product making use of that IP. And there’s a reason that Fan Fiction writers don’t sell their stories.

So I do see both sides of the argument, and both have some merit. I think, ultimately, our current copyright climate is poorly designed to handle technologies like Youtube, which can automatically take a piece of fan fiction and convert it into a profit-generating product. This isn’t even the first time this year that we’ve seen this problem.

I think we need to reexamine copyright law within the bounds of new technology. Doubling down on penalties through things like the Digital Milennium Copyright Act hasn’t worked; the vast grey area between fan product and professional product demonstrates that clearly. But copyright is also important; as much as I might like creative commons licensing and as much as I might call for a shorter than average copyright period, I’m not against copyright as a concept.

But studios and rights-holders suing or threatening to sue fans for their enthusiasm over IP isn’t cool either.

I don’t think I have an answer for this one guys. But if you do, please let me know.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s