It’s week two in the Knitting Wars (or Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Copyright). I have been surprised by the level of interest this is generating in the blogosphere, it has been ORGd, EFFd and BoingBoinged, it has also been picked up by the knitting community (I did not know there were so many angry knitters out there!) I have also been interviewed by The Times, so the story may have legs (which in Internet terms means that it will be on the radar for at least a fortnight). There have been some other interesting responses, such as one knitter siding with the BBC, and an excellent article by Jonathan Bailey on where this all fits in the wider fandom picture.
I think that the reason why this story has generated such interest is that it is seen as the typical Amateur David versus the Greedy Goliath. The blogosphere is particularly suspicious of any attempt to remove and take down things (remember the HD-DVD fiasco?) The story also fits well with the picture of corporate greed gone mad, and Brits also love to moan about the Beeb.
I must stress that I do understand why the BBC would want to defend their intellectual property. Doctor Who fans should understand that improved production values are expensive, and that the BBC needs to secure funding to continue giving us quality programming. However, I have to log my complaint about the horrible episode “The Doctor’s Daughter“, you could literally see the sterling signs in the eyes of the writers when they thought of a new Doctor Who spin-off directed at the teenage market. Even David Tennant seemed embarrassed by the whole thing. Similarly, it has to be said that the Adipose dolls were being sold on eBay by unscrupulous knitters, which appears to have prompted the whole action.
However, copyright owners should recognise that it is the fans who make or break their intellectual property, and as such, one should be very careful when biting the hand that feeds you. Danny O’Brien made the excellent point that it was the fans who kept the Doctor Who franchise alive during the 90s. Copyright owners should also finally understand that just because someone knits a Dalek or an Ood, they will still buy official merchandise.
This brings me to the wider question of fan art. The explosion of user-generated content tools means that it is easier than ever before to make one’s own interpretation of a loved character, and to distribute it to the public. Creativity knows no copyright boundaries, and fans are likely to enhance and reinterpret works of popular culture in imaginative ways. Fan fiction, fan art, and mash-ups do not detract from the original work, they enhance the brand. The problem of fan art will not go away with angry cease-and-desist letters, it will only get worse.
Why then not recognise this in the law, and find ways of allowing legitimate non-commercial fan art? Lessig already suggested as much in Free Culture, and Creative Commons is part of a solution. However, it is extremely unlikely that large corporate owners will adopt CC in the near future, so perhaps other solutions are needed. I believe that fan licences are the way forward.
This is already taking place. Microsoft has created a Machinima licence with its Game Content Usage Rules, which allow fans to make derivative works of Xbox games as long as they are non-commercial. Blizzard has also created a Fansite Kit, which allows fans to download high-quality images for use on their own WoW sites. See, smart content owners know that the fans are their best marketing tool, why fight a futile battle against user-generated content, when you can make it work for you?
By the way, the name of that Dalek is “Extermiknit”.