nettime's_roving_reporter on 20 Jul 2000 00:22:05 -0000

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<nettime> Digital Land Grab


Digital Land Grab

Media corporations are stealing our cultural heritage. Can we take it

By Henry Jenkins, director of the Program in Comparative Media 
Studies at MIT.

Between 1869 and 1930, some 200 writers imitated, revised or parodied
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Some sent Carroll’s plucky
protagonist into other imaginary lands others sent different protagonists
to encounter the Mad Hatter or the Cheshire Cat. Some promoted
conservative agendas, others advocated feminism or socialism.  Among
Carroll’s imitators were literary figures such as Christina Rossetti,
Frances Hodgson Burnett and E. Nesbit. Literary critic Carolyn Sigler
argues that Alice parodies contributed considerably to Carroll’s
subsequent reputation. Today, after Shakespeare’s work and the Bible,
Lewis Carroll’s writings are the most often cited in the English-speaking

Now try a thought experiment. Imagine that the Wonderland stories were
first appearing in 2000 as products of Disney or Viacom, and Rossetti,
Burnett and Nesbit were publishing their parodies on the Internet. How
long would it be before they were shut down by “cease-and-desist” letters?
How many people would download “A New Alice in the Old Wonderland” before
a studio flack asserted Disney’s exclusive control over Humpty Dumptyª,
The Cheshire Catª or The Red Queenª?

Rossetti’s descendants, now called “fans,” borrow characters, situations
and themes from pre-existing works (more often television series than
novels) and use them as resources for their own stories.  Sometimes, such
stories offer ideological critiques. Other times, fans recenter the plots
around secondary characters or simply provide back story. These modern-day
“scribblers” are housewives, secretaries, librarians, students, average
citizens; their parodies are labors of love, paying public tribute to
popular narratives that capture their imagination.

These fans are also shock troops in a struggle that will define the
digital age. On the one hand, the past several decades have seen the
introduction of new media technologies (from the VCR to MP3) that empower
consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate and recirculate cultural
materials. On the other, the emergence of new economic and legal
structures makes tight control over intellectual property the basis for
the cross-media exploitation of “branded” materials. We can already see
bloody skirmishes over intellectual property as these two trends collide.
Not long ago, Fox’s lawyers took down dozens of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
fan sites, and nobody even blinked because such saber rattling has become
a regular occurrence. 

A year or so ago, J. Michael Straczynski, executive producer of the cult
television series “Babylon 5,” was speaking to the students in my science
fiction class at MIT. One student asked him what he thought about “fans,”
and after a pause, he replied, “You mean, copyright infringers.” The
remark was met with nervous laughter and mutual misunderstanding.

So far, most discussions of intellectual property in cyberspace are
preoccupied with calming corporate anxieties about controlling the flow of
images and information. Technologists have touted new automated
enforcement mechanisms that allow owners to ferret out infringements, and
digital watermarks for tracing the precise origins of appropriated images.
Yet we rarely ask whether such tight regulation of intellectual property
is in the public interest. Who speaks for the fans? No one.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have a case. Indeed, there’s much to be said
on the scribblers’ behalf. Fan critics might be covered by the same “fair
use” protections that enable journalists or academics to critically assess
media content, or by recent Supreme Court decisions broadening the
definition of parody to include sampling. Fans don’t profit from their
borrowings, and they clearly mark their sites as unofficial to avoid
consumer confusion. Fan sites don’t diminish market value, often actively
organizing letter-writing campaigns to keep floundering programs on the

Sadly, none of this matters. If you are a housewife in Nebraska and you
receive a letter from Viacom’s attorneys telling you to remove your Web
site or they will take away your house and your kid’s college fund, you
don’t think twice about your alternatives. You fold.

As a result, although cease-and-desist orders are routine corporate
practice, not a single case involving fan fiction has ever reached the
courts. No civil-liberties organization has stepped forward to offer pro
bono representation. Presumably, the right to free expression doesn’t
extend to the right to participate in your culture. As currently
understood, the First Amendment protects media producers, but not media
consumers. Copyright and trademarks are legal “rights” granted to property
owners, while fair use is a “defense” which can only be asserted and
adjudicated in response to infringement charges.  And most of the people
being caught in these battles lack the financial resources to take on a
major corporation in court.

Disney, Fox and Viacom understand what’s at stake here. The proliferating
media mergers attest to their recognition that media convergence
transforms intellectual property into solid gold. Viacom calls a
television series like “Star Trek” a franchise that can generate a
seemingly infinite number of derivative products and revenue streams in
many media channels. What they can’t produce and market directly, they
license to another company.

Preparing for this new era, media companies are expanding their legal
control over intellectual property as far and as wide as possible,
strip-mining our culture in the process. They have made inventive uses of
trademark law to secure exclusive rights to everything from Spock’s pointy
ears to Superman’s cape, pushed policies that erode the remaining
protections for fair use, and lobbied for an expansion of the duration of
their copyright protection and thus prevented works from falling into the
public domain until they’ve been drained of value. In the end, we all
suffer a diminished right to quote and critique core cultural materials.
Imagine what our holiday season would look like if Clement Moore had
trademarked Santa Claus! 

For most of human history, the storyteller was the inheritor and protector
of a shared cultural tradition. Homer took plots, characters, stories,
well known to his audiences, and retold them in particularly vivid terms;
the basic building blocks of his craft (plots, epithets, metaphors) were
passed from one generation to another. The great works of the western
tradition were polished like stones in a brook as they were handed off
from bard to bard. This process of circulation and retelling improved the
fit between story and culture, making these stories central to the way a
people thought of themselves. King Arthur, for example, first surfaces as
a passing reference in early chronicles and only over the course of
several centuries of elaboration becomes complex enough to serve as the
basis for Le Morte D’Arthur.

Contemporary Web culture is the traditional folk process working at
lightning speed on a global scale. The difference is that our core myths
now belong to corporations, rather than the folk. 

And that kind of exclusive ownership cuts directly against the grain of
the technology in question. From the start, computers were seen as tools
of collaboration, designed to facilitate brainstorming and data sharing.
If one follows the flow of ideas on a Web forum for more than a few posts,
it becomes harder and harder to separate one person’s intellectual
property from another’s. We quote freely, incorporating the original
message into our own. When netizens discuss television, we quote equally
freely, pulling chunks of aired material into our posts, and adding our
own speculations. Other people respond, add more material, and pretty soon
the series as viewed by list participants differs radically from the
series as aired. In other words, webbers approach television content as

Still, what one originates, the law insists, one should have the right to
control and profit from. The legal fiction is that no one is harmed by
this land grab on the cultural commons. Tight control over intellectual
property isn’t ultimately a question of author’s rights, because without
much discussion, control has shifted from individual artists to media
corporations—authors now have little say over what happens to their
creations. The corporate attorneys rule. 

If trademarks are used too broadly and without a history of legal
enforcement, companies will lose exclusive claims to them—so Coca-Cola
sends out spies to make sure nobody gets served a Pepsi when they order a
Coke, Xerox insists that we call a photocopy a photocopy and Fox scans the
Web to make sure nobody puts an “X-Files” logo on an unauthorized
homepage. Attacking media consumers damages relationships vital to the
future of their cultural franchises, but corporations see little choice,
since turning a blind eye could pave the way for competitors to exploit
valuable properties.

Copyright law was originally understood as a balance between the need to
provide incentives to authors and the need to ensure the speedy
circulation and absorption of new ideas. Contemporary corporate culture
has fundamentally shifted that balance, placing all the muscle on one side
of the equation. Media companies certainly have the right to profit from
their financial investments, but what about the “investments”—emotional,
spiritual, intellectual—we consumers have made in our own culture?

Through its “associates” program, the online book dealer
encourages amateur critics to build book-oriented Web sites. If they link
back to Amazon’s homepage, they will get profit points from every sale
made to consumers who follow that link. Amazon has discovered that
revitalizing a grassroots book culture increases public demand for books.
Perhaps media producers should follow Amazon’s example and find ways to
transform media consumers from “copyright infringers” into niche
marketers, active collaborators in the production of value from cultural

Intellectual property law didn’t matter much as long as amateur culture
was transmitted through subterranean channels, under the corporate radar,
but the Web brought it into view by providing a public arena for
grassroots storytelling. Suddenly, fan fiction is perceived as a direct
threat to the media conglomerates. 

One can, of course, imagine that fans should create original works with no
relationship to previously circulating materials, but that would
contradict everything we know about human creativity and storytelling. In
this new global culture, the most powerful materials will be those that
command worldwide recognition, and for the foreseeable future, those
materials will originate within the mass media.

For the past century, mass media have displaced traditional folk practices
and replaced them with licensed products. When we recount our fantasies,
they often involve media celebrities or fictional characters. When we
speak with our friends, sitcom catchphrases and advertising jingles roll
off our tongues. If we are going to tell stories that reflect our cultural
experiences, they will borrow heavily from the material the media
companies so aggressively marketed to us. Let’s face it—media culture is
our culture and, as such, has become an important public resource, the
reservoir out of which all future creativity will arise. Given this
situation, shouldn’t we be concerned about the corporations that keep
“infringing” on our cultural wellspring?

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