Copyright Characters and Fair Use – Pros and Cons

Perhaps one of the most controversial topics we’ll cover on this blog, copyright laws have plenty of supporters and plenty of detractors. And for good reasons. On one hand, they protect authored creations and they ensure that these authors do not lose profit unfairly. On the other, they severely limit the creativity and potential of many other equally successful artists.

Today, we’re going to talk mostly about fictional characters, although many of the points we make are just as valid for other types of intellectual property. Of course, we’ll also use a bunch of quotes on copyright, since they’re covered under fair use. I hope you’ll enjoy this topic.

Copyright Laws and Fair Use

Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.” – Mark Twain

Unlike most topics we cover in this section, copyright laws are something relatively new. They only came about in the last century and had a number of detractors from the beginning. However, they do serve a greater purpose.

Grounded in the U.S. Constitution, copyright protects intellectual properties situated under the authorship mantle. This means that without consent from the owner of the copyright, nobody else can legally use their property. Copyright laws are valid in most countries around the world, although not all of them.

Fair use, meanwhile, is a copy of a copyrighted material used for transformative and limited means. It usually takes the form of a critique, a commentary, or a parody. While “transformative” is kept intentionally vague, it is generally ok to use fragments of a copyrighted property under fair use.

Most reviewers and critics are free to use scenes from movies, book excerpts, and audio files, as long as they own the source.

Characters in the Public Domain

I had this belief, which was completely erroneous, that if people put your stuff up on the web and you didn’t tell them to take it down, you would lose your copyright, which actually, is simply not true.” – Neil Gaiman

While copyrights are usually rock-solid for the duration of the owner’s life, they sometimes tend to expire. This happens 70 years after the death of the author, so as to ensure that the legacy of the intellectual property is kept intact. Moreover, the owner’s surviving relatives have enough time to benefit from their entitled royalties.

The laws pertaining to the subject are quite complicated, and you can find a very good summary of them on Stanford’s page on the public domain. What is relevant for this discussion is that because of a law passed in 1998 because of Disney, which wanted to keep the rights to Mickey Mouse, a whole bunch of characters became part of the public domain.

These characters include those in the Arthurian legends, Robin Hood, Dracula, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes, the Greek gods, as well as most mythologies, a bunch of fairytale characters such as Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and Cinderella, Gulliver, Don Quixote, Frankenstein’s monster, Captain Ahab, and a whole bunch of other similarly complex and classic personas. There are several online lists featuring these characters, in case you’re interested.

And this is where our debate begins.

The Benefits of Copyright Laws

You will only have copyright in a society that places a very high value on the individual, the individual intellect, the products of individual intellect.” – Tim Parks

On the one hand, copyright laws protect these timeless characters from having their legacy ruined by malevolent or simply untalented parties. As mentioned before, they also ensure that their creator and their relatives and descendants get their rightful royalties.

This is a great way for musicians, authors, designers, and other creative minds to ensure that their creations are respected. Moreover, if anyone else uses their material without permission, the owner of the copyright is entitled to financial restitution.

In the Golden Age of Internet piracy, they also serve as detractors to illegally obtaining and sharing this content. However, that’s about the extent of how copyright laws actually help anyone.

How Copyright Is Detrimental to Our Culture

The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years.” – David Bowie

There are several issues with copyright laws which only make things harder for everybody. For one, they block that intellectual property from being used by more creative, more talented people. Thus, they limit the amount of good material that can be created featuring said characters.

Sure, there are very bad adaptations out there. However, for every movie as bad as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen there are dozens of fanfictions and fan-made movies which are much better than the original source. Hell, the graphic novel after which the movie that made Sean Connery quit acting is a brilliant masterpiece by Alan Moore.

Moreover, the opposite of that situation also happens a lot. Take the insanely huge flop which was DC’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Fans have been waiting for the adaptation for years, if not decades. And many of those fans were insanely talented. Moreover, they knew the movie was going to be bad as soon as it details about it were announced.

When faced with criticism from the fans, the developers dared the fans to make a better movie if they could. But, of course, they couldn’t, since they didn’t own the rights to the characters. Warner Brothers would have sued anyone if they even tried, regardless of the quality of the final product.

And now, fans are stuck waiting for a Justice League movie which is most likely going to suck and which will happen regardless, simply because WB owns the rights to the DC characters.

Sadly, these are just a couple of examples. Because familiarity breeds favorability, classic characters will always be a go-to for those in the entertainment industry. Currently, there are more than a dozen Robin Hood movies in production simply because the character is familiar and under the public domain.

Entertainment has also seen a similar oversaturation with Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, and the Norse mythology. Sure, there are plenty of other avenues to explore, but we are built to favor familiarity. And if more but a select few were allowed to create material pertaining to certain characters, pop culture would see an explosion of high-quality content.

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