DIY Week Killjoy
Well, hello out there. We’re all having a great time on this DIY week at Can’t Talk Media, aren’t we? So much inspiration! So many feelings of accomplishment! A celebration of putting our talents to work and being a part of the things we love!
So, wouldn’t it be a shame if someone butted in and started, say, asking questions.
Someone like a lawyer.
Yes, yes, we’re all having good clean fun (with the possible exception of people doing fingerpainting), but there’s a lingering question out there that think we all should have a good, long think about even if we don’t like the answers we come up with. That question involves considering our responsibilities as consumers and fans of other people’s creations. The question is: Do we need to stop?
Maybe that’s putting it too broadly since what I want to focus on is the commercial side of fan-works. Since I’m always years behind the curve in knowing about stuff, I only discovered you could buy stickers of the really great fan art that people draw. I then proceeded to load up my car with cool drawings with the intent of plastering my water bottle and notebooks with them. One of the games I found stickers for was “Undertale,” a PC game that’s being hyped to the high heavens as the best $10 you can spend on Steam right now—and they’re right. I love “Undertale.” I think everyone should at least give it a look, and most should try to play it. It’s deep, well written, well designed, and the characters stick with you well after you’re done playing it. And now I could get stickers! I’d happily buy stickers from an official merch site, but there really wasn’t one. The only thing you could get officially was a digital download of the soundtrack. So I bought the stickers. They’re great.
And then I found a direct statement by the developer, Toby Fox, that addressed mass producible, fan-made merchandise. The overall message? “Don’t.”
“In the meantime, could you guys and gals (and guys) NOT sell unofficial UNDERTALE merch? For the record, I’m OK with one-off commissions (such as the clay models, that felt toriel plush, a drawing of a skeleton you paid someone to do, etc.) but when products show up mass produced at a con or on a website, then we’re going to have a problem.” (Official Undertale Tumblr)
This was the second paragraph of a post announcing that official Undertale merch had launched on its own site—including stickers. Well, don’t I feel like a horse’s ass right now? You see, I know exactly why I shouldn’t have been buying the fan-made stickers in the first place. I know the basics of copyright, and I know enough about fair use to know that selling consistently reproducible, unofficial, unlicensed merchandise for a property that you haven’t been given the rights to profit from probably doesn’t qualify. But there are a million reasons we can give for why you’d want too, right? I mean, no property is ever going to be able to produce all of the things that fans might want. Even huge developers like Blizzard or ones with major publishers behind them like BioWare can’t cover everyone’s appetite for merch. So the fans step in, and they make the stickers, scarves, notebook covers, and tea blends they want to see. And those big companies can handle the minor amount of market competition that comes from the fan productions, so you don’t see many serious gripes from them about the Horde Crest pint glasses or Inquisition symbol tote bags out there on Etsy. They don’t have to be worried, so they can embrace it, and they can look like chill bros in the process. (I mean, they even want to give you prizes for potentially violating their copyright!)
Indie games like “Undertale” (which has a whopping dev team of one guy) and small team projects like “Welcome to Night Vale,” maybe they don’t have that luxury. In a way, they’re in this kind of impossible Catch-22 where they need the community’s support to thrive, but that same community really wants to do stuff that undercuts their ability to control and profit from their creation. So when Toby Fox puts out a paragraph straight up asking people to not sell their own “Undertale” T-shirts or whatever at cons, that’s a decision that was probably pretty tough. Legally, those people probably shouldn’t have been selling stuff in the first place since it’s such a grey area, but it’s hard to see what’s so bad when it comes from a place of love. I clicked around the notes and reblogs of that post, and it’s the usual mishmash of Internet responses, ranging from “message received, I’ll happily stick to the official stuff” to “who are you to tell me that I can’t sell my own art just because it looks like an idea you had?”
I don’t have much in the way of answers here, but I can throw a couple questions your way and maybe get you thinking a little. Do we owe small or indie projects more deference than large ones when it comes to making money from fan creations? Does it matter if there is official stuff that the fan works might be considered in competition with? What if the fans are making things the official store can’t or won’t? How can companies balance the need for good relationships with the rights they have to control their intellectual property?
Also, when exactly is the Tauriel plushie coming out because I really REALLY want that?