I like telling stories, and today I bring you a story in space and time, involving knitting, 3D printing, over-blown intellectual property claims, and sharks.
I hope that it will all make sense.
The story begins in 2008 during the reign of David Tennant as the 10th Doctor. An episode entitled “Partners in Crime” was released that year, featuring curious little monsters called the Adipose. As far as Doctor Who monsters are concerned, this was not the scariest, and it has sort of faded from memory. Shortly after the episode aired, a Doctor Who fan that goes by the Internet name of mazzmatazz created her own knitted version of the Adipose, and published the instructions on how to make one online. After a few days of sharing the instructions, the BBC sent her a threatening letter stating that she was using the Doctor Who brand and characters, and that she should remove all designs from her website.
Mazzmatazz contacted some friends, who put her in touch with the Open Rights Group, a UK-based NGO dedicated to digital rights issues. They in turn put her in touch with legal academics and copyright bloggers, and we publicised the threat. Most of the people who looked at the allegations agreed that they were standing on shaky legal ground. Think about it, Mazz didn’t copy the characters, she transformed it by creating her own version of it, and shared her transformative instructions to others, all non-commercially. Needless to say, the Internet tends to respond to such threats as a direct attack, and the story got some traction in the news, after all, Doctor Who fans have a long history of knitting.
Thanks to the pressure that we were able to exert, the BBC dropped the aggressive tone and decided to work together with Mazzmatazz and other knitters. The law in the UK has been moving in interesting directions, and I believe that had the case gone to court, Mazz could have won it. But the best decision was reached for all involved.
I was reminded of this event recently. During this year’s Super Bowl, the half time show featured pop singer Katy Perry. It was brash, loud and colourful, and the middle of the show featured Katy dancing with two blue sharks. The left shark was completely missing the choreography, thus completely stealing the show. The Internet exploded, the hashtag rose to the top of social media, and a new online star was born. Left shark launched a thousand memes.
Following the popularity of left shark, an artist called Fernando Sosa sculpted a small figurine of left shark, scanned it and turned it into a 3D printing model, making it available for sale in the website Shapeways, where people could buy it. Katy Perry’s lawyers promptly sent a threatening letter alleging that Sosa was infringing Perry’s intellectual property, and the file was removed from Shapeways. After legal consultation, Sosa decided to ignore the threat, and you can buy the Left Shark 3D printed figure.
Perry’s lawyers even tried to have the left shark trade marked, but they cancelled the application after it was pointed out to them that they were using the very figurine that they had threatened as a basis for the application.
In my mind both the knitting case and the 3D printing case are similar from a legal perspective, with the exception that Sosa was definitely selling his file. In both cases we have a transformative use of the original that requires considerable skill and labour to pull. The level of originality and creativity on display is astounding, and in both instances I am not sure that the content owners have a legitimate case.
This talk does have a serious point. The Left Shark case is just the opening salvo in a new war between users and content owners in the arena of 3D printing. I don’t think that we have fully explored the potential of this technology, but it is clear that users are going to be able to create their own versions of much-loved characters in ways that may compete with legitimate marketing and merchandising products. Intellectual property owners must be prepared to take into account 3D printing, but I also think that the law on transformative uses is not completely clear.
There is currently a review of the 2001 copyright directive headed by the Pirate Party’s MEP Julia Reda. The report recognises the existence of transformative uses, let me be clear that the proposal won’t change the law, but at least it is a start. I would like for it to eventually lead to something that I call a Fan Art exception to copyright law. It is my belief that smart IP owners gain nothing going after their fans, and on the contrary, they can win by allowing the amazing creativity on display to act as an engagement tool with their fans. Already some companies are quite open about this, allowing fan-made creations to inform their property, and even incorporating fan creativity as an indication of popularity.
Thank you, and I hope that you too will support transformative uses.