Friday, June 8, 2012

On The Honesty of Star Trek Fan Productions

Fan productions have a number of innate advantages over professional work. Being free from commercial restraints is one such boon – I only have to worry about what I want to put into my creation, not what my audience demands. If I wish to write a political polemic that espouses the virtues of Ferengi existentialism I don't have to worry that it won't sell! We can, and many do, put whatever message we want into our fiction without worrying about the interference of media executives.

Because my work is free from the need to be a financial success I can take any chance I desire without worrying if it will make enough money from the mugs and mouse mats I might be selling from my website to pay for the server costs for the month.

If I am confident about what I am trying to do, I can call down to the Engine Room, “Full speed ahead and damn the critics!”

Without belittling the required technical knowledge needed to be a critic, all too often their reviews are not constructive and survive on the public's vicarious enjoyment of their negative attitude. All to often they use the cheap-shot yuks of Mary Sue jokes to take a holier-than-thou attitude towards fan productions. Alas, they suffer from the same commercial imperative as others who see their work as a salable commodity: their purpose is not to improve the work of those being reviewed but to entertain the public and in so doing improve their Alexa web ranking.

Years ago I wanted to write an audio drama series that dealt with the themes of aggression, bravery and honour - Tales of Death and Honour - and I chose to build my premise on the diametrically opposed cultures of the Klingon and Vulcan in Star Trek. Knowledge of he TV program and movies is so pervasive throughout Western Society and beyond that there would be few who can read the English language who would not have a working knowledge of it! The very names are synonymous with the concepts of aggression and honour as against pacifism and logic.

[sighs] So why not do the same thing based on your own fictional universe, I hear you say? Because my story requires that I use these two memes, because if I tried to make my own fictional universe that could do the same thing, all I would be doing would be copying the Star Trek universe and giving it different names. That, dear reader, is true plagiary to my mind!

I will accept the slings and arrows that say this is a cop-out and my only defense is that I'm a Trek fan who has such an immense respect for the fictional universe which the professionals have created that my own creative processes march in synch with theirs.

Like most Star Trek fan producers, as I've said before, for the most part I don't use canon characters - all my characters and situations are original and simply use the Star Trek fictional universe as a framework. However my work is still a fan production and I must acknowledge my debt to those professionals who made the fictional universe - the memes of Klingon and Vulcan - so engrained in popular culture. The actors, the costumers, the prosthetics makers, Marc Okrand and a dozen different writers, directors, producers, Paramount, Desilu and The Great Bird of The Galaxy.

So, in answer to the question how do I rationalise using someone else's Intellectual Property to tell my own story, all I can say is that I honour the purpose of the law rather than the letter of the law. The purpose of the law is to provide a mechanism of monetary return to the creator to recompense them for their work. The copyright owners and licensees of Star Trek have made a small fortune out of me over the years by my purchase of books, merchandise, role playing games, movie tickets, costumes (yes, I am the proud owner of an Enterprise era uniform that I will be wearing to Supanova this year) and all I ask in return is that they allow me to develop my fandom along creative lines.

Douglas Bader in Reach For The Sky says, "Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men." Rules are created for a reason - find out what that reason is, address that problem and then you have honoured the rule. The purpose of copyright is to either make money for the creator or to make sure that they do not lose any money that they might otherwise make.

If I do NOT write my audio drama series it will not make one extra penny for Paramount. I am not given any realistic mechanism for paying Paramount for using their IP. I could buy a license but since I don't have a six-figure sum sitting in my back pocket this is unrealistic. If I could pay Paramount $10-$50 for a mini-license to write a fan production on the proviso that I make no profit on it, I would be delighted to do so but I can't.

So if I want to exercise my fan experience creatively as an audio drama I have two choices: give them indirect profit and ensure that no money is diverted from them that they would otherwise make.
  • My story supports their fictional universe, develops it and, hopefully, enhances it.
  • By doing so it keeps interest alive in their IP so that existing fans will continue their support of the franchise and new fans will be introduced to it.
  • This is viral promotion - something that professionals paid thousands are struggling to do for them commercially. I give it to them for free.
  • Nothing that I do generates any revenue - I don't have any Tales of Death and Honour T shirts, mugs or mouse mats for sale. If I did, these could be seen as a revenue that is trading at least in part on their IP.
  • In the same way, I don't have a tip jar for myself or a charity (more's the pity) because these could be seen as a revenue that is generated in part on their IP.

Yes, I am using their Intellectual Property but I'm given no realistic way of paying for it, so I use it in a way that gives them indirect revenue and does not divert revenue from them. All I ask in return is to add a rider to my work: "The author reserves the moral right to be identified as the creator of any original work." This is not just ego on my part, it also safeguards them if my work generates any negative publicity. If the public thinks it is crap, its my fault but if it is good I would ask that my original contributions be acknowledged.

Not too much to ask I think.

By the way, with regards to usage of canon characters, I've since remembered that the audio drama, Star Trek Grissom uses canon characters and extrapolates on the classic movie era storyline leading up to The Search For Spock. However the characters are a small part of the whole production and the audience's foreknowledge of the Grissom's tragic fate gives the whole production a dramatic flare that tinges our developing love of the characters. Only an Irishman could think up this!

1 comment:

  1. Furthermore there is also the fair use act which allows someone to use a copyrighted character without compensating the original creator providing the new work does not take away profit from the original, does not devalue the original, does not besmirch the original and does not generate any revenue. Fan Art IS free advertising and many copyright owners like Paramount, Warner Brothers and even Disney see it that way.