Finally! We Can Parody Things In Britain … Thanks To The EU :)

2014 Artwork New parody laws sketch

Although I usually try to avoid talking about politics on this blog, one of the few exceptions I make to this rule is the whole subject of copyright laws.

But, although I’m normally very cynical about politics, I actually have to congratulate parliament today. Yes, you heard me correctly, parliament has done something I actually approve of.

As of today, people in Britain now have the legal right to make parodies of other things – this is a right that Americans have enjoyed for decades at the very least (thanks to their sensible “fair use” copyright rules). But, now, Britain has finally emerged into the 21st century with regard to this issue 🙂

But, like a few other sensible reforms in the UK ( such as with things like LGBT military service and transgender healthcare) it wasn’t the UK parliament itself that was behind this sensible change in our laws. No, it was the EU.

Seriously, for all of the criticisms people make of the EU, it can occasionally be something of a civilising force in British politics. But, I’m getting off-topic here….

Amusingly though, the new British parody rules seem to be the polar opposite of the American ones. Whilst, in the US, a legally-protected parody must make some kind of serious critical comment about the work that it’s borrowing things from, the BBC News article about the new UK laws seems to suggest that legally-protected parodies in the UK actually have to be funny.

Even so, it’ll probably be down to the courts to determine the limits of our new parody laws. I hope that they interpret them in the widest possible way (and that no-one’s lives are ruined by the inevitable court cases) – but, no doubt, we’ll probably still end up having more restrictive laws than some other western countries like the US.

But, this aside, these new laws are at least a small step in the right direction. So, well done parliament and, more importantly, well done to the EU as well 🙂

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Why Do I Use A Creative Commons Licence?

2014 Artwork Arr piracy sketch

Well, since I was asked about this a few weeks ago, I thought that I’d talk about Creative Commons licences today – and why they’re awesome. I’ll also be talking a bit about the failings and shortcomings of traditional copyrights too.

In essence, a Creative Commons licence is something which you can add to any art, fiction, photos, music etc.. you’ve created (provided it is your own original work and isn’t, say, fan art based on something that is still copyrighted) when you release them online and/or offline.

A Creative Commons licence is like a more liberal and enlightened version of a traditional copyright (which, in most places, you get automatically after you create something original), where you can choose what you do and don’t give permission for other people to do with your work.

The licence I tend to use for a fair amount of my art is a “CC-BY-NC-ND” licence. This stands for “Creative Commons – Attribution- Non-Commercial – No-Derivatives” and it is probably one of the most restrictive types of Creative Commons licences out there.

Basically, it means that people can’t sell any art that I make without my permission (I’m not too bothered about people putting my work on small ad-supported websites though. But you can’t use my art in any ads that you make and, if you’re a big corporation, you’ll need to ask my permission to use my art on any of your business-related sites).

This licence also means that people can’t modify my art and claim it as their own (although the “No Derivatives” thing also technically covers fan art too, I’ll turn a blind eye to fan art if it meets certain criteria). Not only that, if anyone uses or displays something that I’ve made in any way, then they have to attribute it to either “C. A. Brown” and/or “PekoeBlaze”. If it’s not possible to display my name beside my work, then just add it to the filename.

It isn’t all bad though – the “CC-BY-NC-ND” licence also means that if anyone wants to share my work online with their friends or just display it on their site (with the proper attribution), then they don’t have to ask permission to do this – although if you’re using my art on your website, then I wouldn’t mind a link to it 🙂

So, why don’t I use a traditional copyright for most of my art? I mean, the licence I use is fairly close to an “ordinary” copyright, so why don’t I just go the whole hog and copyright all of my art?

Because I don’t want to be an asshole. I’m also something of a realist about the internet too.

It’s as simple as that.

People and companies who aggressively and unrelentingly police their copyrights not only tend to alienate a lot of their fans, but they’re also as foolish as King Canute trying to order back the tides.

Computers can copy things in seconds and the internet is specifically designed for sharing and distributing information. So, the idea of trying to prevent people from actually using this inherent feature of our technology is as foolish as trying to sell ice in Antarctica. People are going to share things on the internet, so there’s no point in wasting time and energy trying to prevent this.

If a business or large company is smart enough, they’ll find ways to use this fact to their advantage (eg: like how many bands now mostly make money via live performances, merchandise and streaming services rather than through album sales) and they’ll also use it to advertise their other products for free, attract new customers and stuff like that too.

However, doing things like aggressively cracking down on copyright and adding passive-aggressive things like Digital Rights Management to music, films, games etc.. is just going to alienate paying customers and it will probably drive some people to pirate the works in question out of pure spite alone.

I take a more relaxed view towards my art copyrights because I want my work to be distributed. I want my art and art style to be widely recognised (even though, paradoxically, I’d absolutely hate to be a celebrity). Banning people from sharing my art in any way just seems absolutely pointless to me.

Since I don’t have any kind of traditional publishing deal at the moment and I’m about as far from widely-recognised as I can be, the easiest and cheapest way to get my art to as many people as possible is to – essentially – allow people to pirate it. Allowing people who think my art is cool to display it on their own sites and allowing people to put it on file-sharing sites benefits me as an artist.

And, this is why I use a Creative Commons licence.

So, if you like my CC-licenced art, then feel free to raise the Jolly Roger, get a bottle o’ rum and start putting it out there on whatever file-sharing sites that you young rapscallions use these days. Arrr!

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Copyright Terms Should Be Reduced To Twenty Years (either after publication or, at most, p.m.a)

Under current copyright laws, a situation like THIS is entirely plausible in the 22nd century

Under current copyright laws, a situation like THIS is entirely plausible in the 22nd century

Copyright. You either love it or hate it – however you react to that word, you’ll probably have some kind of reaction.

It’s been said much more articulately by a lot of people (such as in this excellent comic by Keith Aoki et al, which you should really read ), but copyright is everywhere.

Virtually every part of our culture is copyrighted by someone or other – I mean, we’re so used to those stupid melodramatic copyright warnings on DVDs (which we’ve legally bought) that we just mentally block them out whenever we see them.

Almost all of our modern fictional folk-heroes are copyrighted or trademarked in some way or another (eg: Captain Picard, James Bond etc…). Not to mention that, every once in a while, there will be editorials in the paper by some rich celebrity or other sternly lecturing and guilt-tripping us about the value of copyright.

If you’ve ever seen one of your favourite Youtube videos taken down “Due to a copyright claim by [a faceless corporation]” or even if you want to watch something on Hulu, but can’t because it’s only available in America, then you’ll probably know about copyright.

Like oxygen, copyright is everywhere.

But, saying this, I don’t hate copyright. Copyright exists for a reason.

It’s just that, over the past few decades, this reason seems to have been distorted beyond recognition.

Whilst I’m certainly not the first person to argue in favour of shorter copyright terms, I’ll set out the main arguments for why copyright terms should be reduced to something far more reasonable and sensible.

In principle, copyright is a good thing. It ensures that the person who created something can profit exclusively from it for a limited period of time and it stops uncreative people from cashing in on the work of creative people. This is good.

But this isn’t what copyright is these days – these days, there are plenty of uncreative people cashing in on the work of creative people.

When you buy a DVD or a record – how much of that money (after VAT or sales tax) goes to the musician, director, actors etc….? If the answer is anything less than, say, sixty or seventy percent – then you can guarantee that someone uncreative is profiting very handsomely from it. I thought that copyright was supposed to prevent this kind of thing!

Not only that, the first copyright law in the United Kingdom ( the Statute Of Anne from 1710 ) allowed a maximum copyright term of twenty-eight years, provided that the copyright was renewed after fourteen years. That sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? Especially if it was revised down to twenty for the sake of simplicity (or, if we’re being practical – even the life of the creator plus twenty years would still be an improvement). After all, if you write something good which people want to read, you can sell a lot of books in a couple of decades.

These days, it’s the creator’s entire life plus seventy years! Yes, that’s right – people still theoretically have total control over their work and the rights to royalties from it for seven decades after they have died!

In reality, we know that the people who actually get those royalties are the creator’s family and, more often, their publishers. Yes, I understand the argument that copyrights and royalties are a form of inheritance. But, in their current form, I don’t think that they’re really a fair form of inheritance.

Being bequeathed all of the profits that were made from a book or record whilst it’s creator was alive is a fair inheritance (like being bequeathed any other sum of money which someone owned when they were alive).

Hell, even being given the profits from something for, say, twenty years after it’s creator has died – is a fair inheritance. But keeping total control of part of our shared culture and popular imagination for two to three generations just seems a little bit excessive to me.

Then there’s the argument that copyright promotes innovation. This is technically true, since you can’t just copy someone else’s work wholesale and call it your own if there are copyright laws. You have to invent something new. Yes, copyright promotes innovation.

But, have you ever noticed that when something popular gets copied by everyone (with just enough changes to make it original), it quickly turns into a cliche? Everyone quickly gets bored of it and yearns for something original again – people who keep creating just-about-legal derivative works lose out because everyone’s already seen, heard or read it a thousand times before and isn’t interested any more. So, eventually, people will innovate anyway regardless of whether copyright exists or not.

Not only that, if copyright terms were a lot shorter (eg: twenty years after publication), this would force the authors and musicians to innovate. After all, they can’t coast through life from the profits of one thing they’ve produced a few decades ago. In other words, they’ll have to produce something new at least every two decades. That sounds like innovation to me….

This brings me on to the argument about royalties being a good source of retirement money (which is probably why the copyright terms on musical recordings were recently extended in Europe – after all, we can’t have extremely rich rock stars from the 1960s losing out on a single penny in their old age).

I understand this argument but, if a work is successful, then having twenty years’ worth of profits to retire on would still be a pretty good prospect. And, if a work hasn’t been successful, then it probably unfortunately isn’t going to sell that well (or even be remembered) more than twenty years later anyway.

Finally, and most importantly, every published creative work becomes part of the popular imagination and our culture to some level or another. Things that are still well-remembered after twenty years become a large part of our culture and imaginations in general, yet they are still privately-owned.

We can’t re-tell our favourite modern “folk tales” without getting permission and paying royalties and we can’t sing well-known modern “ballads” without technically having to pay royalties either (including, scarily, “Happy Birthday“).

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that they had the right idea in 1710 when it comes to the whole subject of copyright.

Jokes, The Public Domain And Storytelling

Have you heard about the constipated mathematician?

Have you heard about the constipated mathematician?

[Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, but I know a few lawyer jokes].

Although this is another one of those subjects which other people have almost certainly already written whole dissertations about, I thought that I’d share my views on it. I am, of course, talking about what jokes can tell us about storytelling.

I started thinking about this after I read an absolutely hilarious joke on the internet about an old man waiting outside the gates of heaven (it’s at least slightly irreverent, and possibly even vaguely blasphemous, so I won’t repeat it here).

Anyway, I later ended up telling the joke to someone else and, whilst I was telling it, I noticed that I was embellishing parts of it and describing things differently. This is, of course, nothing special – it’s how people tell jokes. After all, delivery is everything.

But it made me think about jokes in general. After all, I had essentially created a new version of this joke. A new retelling which was slightly different from the one that I’d read. Again, this is nothing special. It’s part of what jokes are. Every time they’re told, someone adds something different to them or changes something slightly.

Apart from a few jokes which have been told by stand-up comedians, no-one really knows who wrote most of the jokes which exist today. In other words, most jokes don’t really “belong” to anyone. And, most interestingly, there isn’t really a “definitive” or “authentic” version of any particular joke – there are just lots of slightly different versions.

Anyway, since most longer jokes are basically very short stories, this can teach us something about storytelling.

Like with old folk stories (where, again, there are lots of slightly different versions and retellings), most jokes are essentially part of the public domain. As I said earlier, they don’t usually “belong” to anyone (unless, sometimes, if people write them down).

As such, they get passed around verbally and everyone creates their own slightly different version of the joke when they’re telling it. Instead of reciting them from a book, people usually tell their favourite jokes in their own words and in a way that they feel will be the most amusing and dramatic.

Back in the old days, the same used to be true for stories as well – then the printing press was invented and copyright laws were passed. Now, even with old stories that have gone out of copyright, there’s usually only one “definitive” version of a story. And, with newer stories, no-one else is allowed to re-tell them. In essence, stories went from being part of the collective imagination to being private property.

Although this isn’t really an article about the many faults of modern copyright law (does anyone really need to keep their copyrights until seventy years after they have died?), centuries of ever-expanding copyright laws have changed how we see and understand stories.

After all, these days, a story is something which is told in one way by one person. We say that a story “belongs” to a particular writer rather than just seeing the story as a “thing” in and of itself. Again, there have probably been whole books written about this subject and I’m probably not exactly saying anything groundbreaking here.

Jokes, on the other hand, give us a brief glimpse into how storytelling used to be. The only things that really matter when people tell jokes are that the main events of the joke have to be the same as other versions of the joke (or have to be replaced by something even funnier) and, most importantly, whether the joke is told well or not. Even the most cheesy one-liner can still be funny if it’s told in the right way by someone who knows how to tell jokes properly.

The same is probably true with stories. Because, these days, only one person is allowed to tell a particular story – there isn’t any room for embellishments and dramatic re-tellings by ordinary people.

Yes, a story might get turned into a movie and a lot might be changed but, even then, people will usually compare it to the original. Not only that, only film studios with a huge amount of money and resources can really adapt a lot of stories and, even then, they usually have to pay quite a bit for the rights to do so.

If you’d gone back four hundred years and told Shakespeare that he couldn’t put on any of his plays unless he paid large amounts of money to whoever came up with the original stories which he based his plays on, you would probably be laughed out of the ale-house.

Now, most of Shakespeare’s plays weren’t his original ideas, but he’s still famous over four thousand years later purely for the way that he re-told those stories and made them his own. For his version of someone else’s story.

What I’m trying to say is that, when it comes to stories – how you tell them matters as much as what the actual story is. So, if you’ve come up with a good idea for a story, then make sure that you tell it in a way which does it justice.

Because, even the most hilarious joke in the world [insert Monty Python reference here] can still be dreary and boring if it’s told with terrible timing and very little emotion.

And, whilst I’m kind of sad that there won’t be numerous re-tellings and different versions of all my favourite stories (and I can’t make any of my own), it’s a fact of life these days that only one person can tell a particular story. So, if that story happens to be your story, make sure that you tell it as well as you can. Because no-one else will.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Should You Release Things You’ve Created Into The Public Domain?

2013 Artwork Should you release things into the public domain

(Note: The usual “I am not a lawyer” disclaimers apply to this article and it shouldn’t be considered proper legal advice. But that probably should be obvious anyway.)

Well, following on from yesterday’s article, I thought that I’d look at the subject of the public domain in a slightly different way. I am, of course, talking about the subject of adding things to it.

Yes, if you want to, you can release as much of your own original work into the public domain as you like, for anyone to use in whatever way that they want with no restrictions whatsoever.

But should you?

How do you release things into the public domain? And what can you release into the public domain?

First of all, you need to own the copyright of literally every part of whatever you are releasing into the public domain. You can’t uncopyright something by anyone else [or containing things by anyone else] without their explicit permission to do so (preferably a clearly-written statement etc…).

Likewise, if you’re making fan art/fan fiction or a parody of something – then it may be “fair use” in some countries, but it isn’t something you can release into the public domain (or even under any kind of Creative Commons licence) since it contains copyrighted material.

However, at the same time, it’s illegal to sell fan art – but sharing and displaying it in a way that doesn’t generate any profit is (probably) legal in America at least (and many major websites seem to be based in the US). Alas, the legal situation with regard to fan art/fan fiction in the UK seems to be a lot more restrictive….

Since copyright is something which is automatically given to pretty much anything that is written, photographed, filmed, drawn, painted, published etc… you have to actively release things into the public domain if you want to do this.

There seem to be several ways to release things into the public domain- you can use a “Creative Commons – Public Domain” licence (or a very similar “Creative Commons – Attribution”/”CC-BY” licence, where the only condition attached to the work is that anyone who uses it must mention who originally produced it).

Likewise, you can just place a statement next to the work in question or on the work itself stating that you are releasing it without copyright. Whilst I don’t know if this has any legal authority, it’s a fairly clear piece of evidence in case anyone tries to sue anyone. You can also write a long statement/disclaimer which states that you also won’t enforce your copyrights in countries that don’t allow people to release things without copyright.

Is there a middle ground between copyright and the public domain?

Yes.

If you want people to be able to share your work freely, but you still want to retain some control/ownership of it – then a good halfway house between the public domain and traditional copyright are Creative Commons licences.

There are several different types of licence that you can use, but the one I tend to use fairly often for my art and comics is the “Attribution – Non-commercial – No Derivatives” licence (CC-BY-NC-ND). This licence allows people to share anything released under it as long as they say who produced it, don’t sell it and don’t alter it in any way.

This, to me, is a good way to keep ownership of most of my art and comics but to also allow people to share it if they want to. It’s also, to me, something of a statement that says “I’m not going to be an asshole about copyright” too.

Although I use the “no derivatives” part to protect against people modifying my work slightly and passing it off as their own, I personally (with regard to my own work only) don’t consider it to include things like most types of fan art [provided that it’s clearly labelled as fan art and uses a different art style to my original art] and things people make when they follow my “how to draw” guides.

In fact, if you make something using one of my drawing guides, then you can consider it to be your own work. However, you can’t modify the guide itself, even though you’re allowed to share it.

But, many people consider the “No derivatives” part of the licence to cover these things (eg: fan art, fan fiction etc..) with relation to their own work.

Why do people release things into the public domain?

– If it’s something you aren’t going to sell or compile or use in any way at a possible future date, then you might as well let other people use it. What’s the point of hoarding things you’ve made until 70+ years after you’ve died?

– Opposition to current copyright laws. If you’re a creative person, then releasing at least some of your work into the public domain is a much better and much more principled form of protest about our (ridiculously excessive) copyright laws than downloading/torrenting/copying things. I personally have no real moral objections to people downloading/torrenting things, but I wouldn’t really agree that it’s a proper form of protest though.

– Public-spirited generosity.

– Because you’re eager to see what other people can do with your work (although a Creative Commons ShareAlike licence also allows you to do this, albeit with a few restrictions).

– Publicity/free advertising. Copyright-free stuff can attract people to your website and might also make them notice other things you’ve made which you’ve decided to keep the copyright to.

Think through the implications and be careful.

Once you release something into the public domain, you permanently give up all ownership of it. If someone finds a way to make a million from selling it, then you have no right to demand even a penny in royalties from them. If someone changes and modifies it beyond all recognition in a way that you don’t like, there’s nothing you can do.

If someone else claims authorship of it then, although it’s still basically plagiarism (and they can’t claim any copyright ownership unless they’ve heavily modified it) by most people’s definition of the word, I don’t think that it can really be considered plagiarism in legal terms.

In other words, I think that you can’t sue people if they claim authorship of something you’ve released into the public domain (however, they can’t really sue people for copying it or claiming authorship either). But, once again, I’m not a lawyer or an expert on the law…

So, be careful what you release into the public domain.

Generally speaking, although I haven’t released that much into the public domain, the things I tend to release are very simple images which could be useful to other people (like this comic template) or drawings which I don’t really care too much about (like this random gothic/1980s-style sketch of a pyramid) but which people could use to make cool things out of.

However, I wouldn’t even dream of releasing any of my comics or articles into the public domain.

At the end of the day, use your own judgement and remember that, once you put something into the public domain, you can’t take it out of the public domain.

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Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂