May 20, 2013

Embracing Remix Culture

"Good artists copy; great artists steal."
The first fandom I was ever really got in to was the Redwall series. Pokemon was another thing I was a fan of for quite a while, along with Dragon Ball Z. Recently I've become a fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Both My Little Pony and Pokemon are notable for producing truly absurd amounts of fanart. Many people aren't actually aware of the massive amount of pokemon fanart that exists. Sonic is another fandom that produces stupendous amounts of fanart, and some of it is incredible:
Endless Possibilities Miles Tails Prowler Rat Rage BLAZE
Cracking down on fanart is obviously a futile endeavor, and so it has persisted in a legal grey area. People regularly sell unauthorized fanart at conventions like Emerald City Comicon, but it's largely ignored by the large companies, since the benefits clearly outweigh the costs of actually pursuing legal action. The exception to this, at least in recent years, seems to be games. For whatever reason, games are a large enough endeavor that they attract the attention of large companies and are squashed regularly. There have been many, many fan pokemon games (usually aimed at building an MMO) that have been shut down by Nintendo despite the fact that an official pokemon MMO has yet to materialize.

This happens even when the games are non-commercial, which is frustrating, especially when the game in question has clear, obvious disclaimers that it is not officially sanctioned and has no affiliation with the original company. If the company is so worried about maintaining the image and representation of its trademark, why doesn't Nintendo do something about the terabytes of pokemon porn being produced? The answer is that it can't, because there's just no economic way to do so. I bring this up, because this raises an interesting question: If Nintendo has been forced to allow truly absurd amounts of rule 34 being applied to literally every IP that it owns, why hasn't Nintendo's brand image suffered at all?

It seems to me that a large amount of this stems from the overzealous protection of brand image that heralds from an era when brand image was easily corruptible. This isn't 1990 anymore. We live in the age of Rule 34, where there is easily accessible, unspeakably horrible adult pornography made of basically everything that exists. The internet generation has grown up in a world where the instant we leave officially sanctioned websites, there will be grotesquely inappropriate artwork drawn that involves that franchise. We know this art has nothing to do with the official image because it's obvious and we're used to it. If someone makes an unofficial Pokemon game and it sucks, no one is going to mistake it as an official Nintendo game and fault Nintendo for it unless it gets really big.

Even if they do, Nintendo's ruined their own IP several times, and it never really seemed to matter. A case study is actually Sonic, which is an IP that has been phenomenally mismanaged by SEGA. They made a reboot of the franchise that is widely considered one of the worst games ever made. Then they released Sonic Unleashed, and a bunch of people grumbled, but they still bought it. Then they released Sonic Colors and managed to at least redeem themselves as being capable of not making crap, and then they released Sonic Generations, which was lauded as being a superb game and sold almost 2 million copies, doubling the sales of Sonic 2006.

In short, it doesn't matter. Even when the companies themselves completely screw up their own IP, it was rapidly recovered from. Franchises are not fragile. Despite this, we have super draconian copyright laws that prevent everything that was made after Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain. So far all we can really hope for is tolerance towards fanart from a major corporation. Given the increasing power of creative tools and the proliferation of the internet, it is becoming cheaper and cheaper for people to make their own art. There is a fundamental shift happening, but no company seems to want to acknowledge it, let alone take advantage of it.

With one exception.

Something particularly magical has happened with My Little Pony, where multiple background ponies have actually been named by the fans of the show. Derpy was the most prominent instance, though sadly the result was censored after it was deemed too offensive to people with disabilities. The fandom has produced ridiculous amounts of art, music, fanfiction, and even entire fan-made episodes. Hasbro has been remarkably lenient about all this, and it gives us a glimpse into the future of creative media. Sadly, the whole game thing is still there, with basically every single fanmade attempt at a My Little Pony game getting shut down by Hasbro (seriously, what's up with that?).

Eventually, modern companies will need to embrace Remix Culture as an integral part of the creative process. I would like to see companies allowing fans to sell their work so long as a 10% royalty is provided to the company, or something similar. This is basically an enormous emerging market that is being completely ignored. Furthermore, as a society, we need to let go of draconian enforcement of IP. Just as the patent system has become hopelessly outdated, so has our copyright system. We are entering a new era, where the tools needed to make incredible works of art are made available to the general population, and instead of encouraging it, we are crushing it.

Companies are so worried about piracy and people not buying their products the way they want them to buy their products that they aren't looking at alternative revenue sources. The companies suffer, the consumers of the media suffer, the fanart suffers, and the world is a less enriched place because of it. Art is an integral part of any successful civilization - look at the magnificence produced by fans of My Little Pony and tell me this isn't something we should be encouraging. I believe that something truly beautiful is happening here, made possible by a bunch of people who like cartoon ponies.

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