Please gather around, and listen to this cautionary tale of schadenfreude and greed. This is not a tale for the faint of heart; it involves a cabal of crypto-enthusiasts involved in a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO), a failed film adaptation by Alejandro Jodorowsky of the classic book Dune , and industrial amounts of misunderstanding about copyright.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is a science fiction classic that speaks to audiences across cultures and time, it was published in 1965 and became an instant hit, winning the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 1966, and it’s been declared the best selling sci-fi novel of all time. The intricate world building, the political intrigue, the memorable characters, the worms, and the ecological angle have made it a fan favourite. Personally, I have loved the book since I was a teenager, and I have used the litany against fear in some of the most stressful times of my life. It’s been put on screen by none other than David Lynch in a flawed masterpiece in 1984, then it was turned into a miniseries in 2000, and more recently it became a global hit in 2021 directed by Denis Villeneuve. It has spawned several books, Frank Herbert wrote a number of sequels, and his son Brian Herbert published a much derided series of prequels with author Kevin J Anderson (which I have tried to remove from my memory, but I digress).
But before all that, there was the failed project that is Jodorowsky’s Dune.
Jodorowsky’s Dune holds a special place in nerd circles, and is the subject of a fantastic documentary aptly called “Jodorowsky’s Dune“. Alejandro Jodorowsky is a true visionary, he’s a Chilean-French director, actor, writer, producer, musician and composer. He came to prominence in the 60s and early 70s in intellectual circles with surrealist cult films El Topo and The Sacred Mountain. After the commercial success of Dune, the film rights were optioned in 1971 to a film company, but they didn’t develop the project and sold the rights to a French consortium that included famous French producer Michele Seydoux, who was also a fan and collaborator of Jodorowsky. They started production in a castle in France in 1975, Seydoux gave Jodorowsky full liberty to find the cast and crew, and a budget of around $9 million USD. The director then set out to find a group of “spiritual warriors” to start pre-production. Jodorowsky brought together an incredible array of artists, starting with legendary comic artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud for the storyboards, as well as H.R Geiger, Chris Foss, and Dan O’Bannon.
The resulting storyboard and script is sometimes known as the Dune Bible, only 20 copies were made, and there are only a few known copies in existence.
Jodorowsky had brought together an incredible array of talent, the cast included Salvador Dali, David Carradine, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles, and music by Pink Floyd. But the production had quickly burned through millions of dollars even before having filmed a single frame. Jodorowsky was jetting around from city to city talking to actors, promising Dali an exorbitant salary, helicopters, robots, and a burning giraffe; then promising Welles a private chef and unlimited supply of expensive wine. The budget spiralled out of control, the funds dried up, film studios were skeptical, and production inevitably stalled and was shut down. The film rights were purchased by Italian producer Dino de Laurentis. The rest is history.
Fast forward a few decades. One of the few known copies of the Dune Bible was put up for auction in 2021 at Christie’s with an estimated price of €25-35k EUR. This is when a number of crypto-enthusiasts got together to create the SpiceDAO, an organisation that would crowdfund resources to buy the book. Without going into a lot of detail, a DAO is a collective organised by smart contracts, in which participants provide funds which give them voting rights whenever a decision needs to be made. The funds and profits are handled by the smart contract.
NFT collector Soban Saqib (Soby), one of the founders of the SpiceDAO, bought the book with his own funds at the final price of $3 million USD, and he then sold it to the collective. It’s not clear why they paid 100x the calculated price, but that is immaterial (edit: interesting side note, the previous copy of the book was sold for $42k in 2019). From the very start, there was a mixed message on the reasons why the DAO was purchasing the book. In an interview with Decrypt, Soby stated that the DAO had “the goal of funding an animated film or series and other creative projects, directed by community decisions, inspired by the intent and vision of Jodorowsky’s Dune.” In a glowing article by Buzzfeed, Saquib stated that “it’s almost like a jailbreak kind of situation” and that they intended to “liberate” the book.
The DAO’s website states that the objectives are:
- Preservation (e.g. through professional digitization; to the extent permitted by law)
- Accessibility (e.g. through public viewings and digital lending; to the extent permitted by law)
- Awareness (e.g. through events such as a panel with the artists represented in the manuscript).
(Edited: number 3 may be difficult as most of the artists are no longer with us).
And then the SpiceDAO tweeted the following:
We won the auction for €2.66M. Now our mission is to:
1. Make the book public (to the extent permitted by law)
2. Produce an original animated limited series inspired by the book and sell it to a streaming service
3. Support derivative projects from the community pic.twitter.com/g4QnF6YZBp
— Spice DAO (🏜,🏜) (@TheSpiceDAO) January 15, 2022
All hell broke loose. Why? Because the people involved appear to have been operating with entirely mistaken conception of what their purchase of the book allows them to achieve.
Let’s go point by point on their mission:
1) Make the work public.
This is perhaps the most achievable one, but it is also the most baffling, as it is a myth that the contents of the book are not available to the public. Sure, I can’t go to Amazon and buy it, but lots of the artwork is available in various sources, including a Google Pictures folder started in 2011. Furthermore, a large number of images where showcased in the aforementioned documentary. The idea that the images need “liberating” is bizarre to say the least, and points towards certain sloppiness of research by the members of SpiceDAO.
But let’s assume that we want some new ways of gaining access to the Dune Bible. If one reads the tweet together with the website’s objective, the first idea is for holding public displays. As the purchasers of the book, SpiceDAO have the right to show their property in whichever manner they see fit. Heck, if they ever display it in Paris or London, I’ll be one of the first to queue, pandemic permitting.
But what if they want to digitise the book and make it publicly available? I think that this may depend on how litigious the copyright owners are. As mentioned, there are lots of websites already showing the images, and no legal action has been forthcoming, but this may be the result of the nature of the curation, it seems to be completely non-commercial so far.
But what if the DAO wants to mint NFTs? Or get some sort of digital lending program? I can then see lawsuits flying fast, as I can see this being a clear case of copyright infringement.
2) Produce an original animated limited series inspired by the book and sell it to a streaming service
The purchase of the book confers no copyright whatsoever, in fact, Christie’s conditions of sale clearly state that “we don’t give any guarantee that you will obtain copyright or other reproduction rights in the lot.” This means that copyright has to be negotiated independently for the work, and in this case copyright is not mentioned at all in the lot’s description.
So without no copyright agreement or licence, SpiceDAO has exactly the same copyright claims to the Dune Bible as I do, namely none. One could look at the language they use in interviews and in the Tweet, and we could argue that the term “inspired by” is quite vague. Do they intend to take the images and create a derivative that does not infringe? That may be tricky, and could still land them in court trying to determine if a line has been crossed.
Besides, we already have a derivative inspired by the Dune Bible, and it’s called The Incal, the amazing collaboration between Jodorowsky and Moebius. They famously used several concepts and artwork from Dune to produce the comic. Incidentally, The Incal is set to become a film, directed by none other than Taika Waititi. Moreover, Dune itself has become a runaway hit film in 2021 by Warner Brothers. There’s no word as to who will produce The Incal, but Waititi has a long-standing collaboration with Disney.
So imagine the SpiceDAO walking into a copyright minefield occupied by Disney and Warner Brothers, armed with nothing more than a “move fast and break things” attitude, sketchy legal understanding of copyright, and the massive schadenfreude that accompanies crypto-bros.
Pass the popcorn.
3) Support derivative projects from the community
There are lots of questions here that I haven’t even started looking at. For starters, who owns the copyright to the Dune Bible? The film project started as a consortium of French financiers and producers, including Jean-Paul Gibon and Michele Seydoux, and these would have been part of the production. Obviously one has to assume that Jodorowsky himself was a copyright owner as the director. But after that it is difficult to tell. Were the many artists involved under contract, or did Jodorowsky promised them a piece of the pie as part of his lavish promises to entice top talent? I have no idea, and I am willing to bet that the present obscurity of the Dune Bible may be attributed to a byzantine network of contracts, promises, and inheritance law. If anyone knows about the ownership aspect, I’m happy to listen.
I visited SpiceDAO’s Discord server to see if I was missing something obvious. Maybe they were in advanced talks with the copyright owners, whoever that may be, but I found nothing. Interestingly, they were advertising for the following collaborators:
“We are always looking for: Full-Stack Developers, Solidity Engineers, L1 Blockchain Specialists, Graphic Designers, NFT Artists ,Yield Farmers, Apparel Manufacturers, Film industry professionals…”
You will notice that they’re not asking for lawyers, and that tells you everything that you need to know about this project.
I feel a bit bad about enjoying this story a bit too much, but there is something compelling about the idea of a bunch of clueless people funding a project of this magnitude without even consulting a lawyer. Under other circumstances I would even applaud the stated goal of “freeing” the Dune Bible… if it hadn’t been done already. But perhaps this may inspire someone to finally publish the book so that everyone can buy a copy, I would clearly purchase one myself. Please take my money.
And who knows? Perhaps someone will eventually produce Jodorowsky’s Dune. To be fair, Jodorowsky took a lot of liberties with Frank Herbert’s story, in the documentary he actually gleefully says “I r*ped Frank Herbert!” I think that what makes his project special is the amazing artwork produced, the story itself is quite bizarre.
To conclude, I am still upset with the collective over their choice of name. Why go for SpiceDAO when CHOAM was available?
Meanwhile, recite with me: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer”.