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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Essay :Big Media's War

It seems like the fight between legal departments at major movie and TV studios and fan producers of websites has reached a fever pitch. In late September, the legal department of Fox TV sent out notices to cease and desist to two webmasters of fan "King Of The Hill" websites. Fox Primetime has cracked down on fan sites before, most notably those saluting "The X-Files." 

It boggles the mind why fan sites pose such a threat to the studios. It would seem that for a fan to take the time and spend the money to build a website without any hope of financial reward would be the supreme compliment to a given show. I know of no fan site which makes money. Usually, unless the webmaster has a free account through their College or University, their Internet access and web space costs money. And if not always a money sink, sites like these are always a time sink. These fans are taking time out of their busy educational and/or work schedules to give these shows free publicity. 

Still photographs from movies and TV shows used for reviews and/or given away, with or without autographs, to fans has been a traditional means of promoting a studio's wares. When fans offer stills for other fans to collect on the Internet, they are conducting a type of trade which has for decades existed via the mail and in face to face memorabilia swaps. 

There is more controversy about audio and video clips, but the fact remains that 10% of a copyrighted work of art can be duplicated for "fair use" purposes according to the Berne Convention, the current standard of law on copyrights for most of the world. Current audio techniques for the Internet like .AU, .AIFF, and .WAV get very, very large unless the audio snippet is only a matter of seconds long. And Real Audio .RAM files and Shockwave Streaming Audio files both play as they pass by and are not stored on a person's computer. We are not talking about piracy here. We are talking about a sample that's only a few seconds long, which the people who painstakingly make the sample slave over without any hope of recompense, and which takes up frightfully large chunks of server space. 
This goes double for the most controversial element of fan sites -- video clips. AVI Video For Windows and QuickTime video files are extremely largely sized. The underground classic short "The Spirit Of Christmas," made by the animators who would later go on to make the hit cable series "South Park" takes up a mind-numbing 50 Megabytes in filesize. Not a casual download to say the least. Unless you have a Cable or ADSL connection to the internet, otherwise you would have to set your computer to download all night to get that file. I have a copy of the famous Apple Computer "1984" commercial that is 11 MB in size. Would I have downloaded that? I really don't think so. I got it from a CD-ROM that Apple put out for promotional purposes. Through MacAddict magazine, I believe off hand.

The studios argue that they are defending their trademarks from passing into the Public Domain, I don’t think so! All of the fan sites I have seen have been scrupulous in giving proper trademark and copyright credits, including the Boomhauer(Did I spell that right?) site which is currently under fire by Fox TV Legal. A trademark cannot go into the Public Domain unless a trademark holder stops using the trademark, and/or specifically donates the trademark into the Public Domain. 

Not every studio has been draconian in their response to fan sites. The independent animation studio Spumco International has been very kind to fan sites, and encourages them. Also the producers of the hit TV series "Babylon 5"(which has quieted down lately) have encouraged fan sites, and in one case, "The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5," have given the official stamp of approval, to fan sites. It is amazing to see the goodwill between "Babylon 5" fans and the series' producers. It perhaps might be not surprising that the "Babylon 5" producers and writers are largely cyber-savvy folks. One of the writers I met, subposidably anyways, on a local BBS(DaRk EcLiPsE BBS, later renamed The Rainbow Connection BBS)

Fan sites provide a great opportunity for cultivation of fan morale, and when fan sites are cracked down upon by studios fan morale sinks. It is the goodwill of the fans that makes a movie or a TV show a hit. Without the fans, the studios have nothing. What is needed is an outreach by studio publicists to encourage and stock fan sites with approved art and sound clips, not a draconian crackdown by studio legal departments. Unlike the fan-art sites which drew the ire of the Warner Bros. Pictures legal department for their naughty pictures of classic WB cartoon characters in an obscene manner, these sites which have been threatened are deferential and respectful to the characters they salute. 

These are not bootleggers who make money off piracy. These are fans, first and foremost, who are spending their time and their money to give these shows and movies free publicity and get no financial reward in return. It is maddening to think that the legal departments of Fox and other companies have nothing better to do than to persecute people for being fans. But perhaps lowered viewership and loss of fan goodwill might cause concrete economic consequences for the studios. And that's perhaps the only thing that will cause the studios to call off their legal dogs and leave the fan sites alone.


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