Copy Catfight: How intellectual property laws stifle popular culture

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News Media Commentary
Title: Copy Catfight -- How intellectual property laws stifle popular culture
Commentator: Jesse Walker
Date(s): March 2000
Venue: online
External Links: Copy Catfight -- How intellectual property laws stifle popular culture, Archived version
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Copy Catfight: How intellectual property laws stifle popular culture is an article written by Jesse Walker and published in the March 2000 issue of

It references the removal of AleXander's Transcripts from The Slayer's Fanfic Archive following a C&D letter; a move which inspired several fan campaigns in 1999. It was linked to at the X-Files webstite Working Stiffs with the title: "No, *really*, what laws am I breaking?"

The article views fan creations through the increasingly ever more restrictive copyright lens and looks at how these laws strike at the heart of social interaction

One reviewer describes the article as: "A descriptive and fairly comprehensive overview of some of the legal controversies surrounding fanfiction." ~ Metafic by Bennie Robbins.


On August 19, 1999, in Los Angeles, a mild act of censorship took place. Twentieth Century Fox, the colossus behind the cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sent a letter to Alexander Thompson, a 35-year-old data processor and devoted Buffy fan. Thompson had spent countless hours transcribing each episode of the show, complete with descriptions of the scenery and action, and had posted the results on the World Wide Web, to his fellow fans' delight. Joss Whedon, the show's writer and producer, had praised Thompson for the job he'd done, even autographing one of the transcripts.

Whedon, however, did not own the copyright to his work. Fox did. And Fox, the company told Thompson, "has a legal prevent the unauthorized distribution of its proprietary material."

In other words, Thompson had to remove his transcripts from his Web site or face a lawsuit.

As far as repression goes, this no doubt sounds trivial. Fox is clearly being stupid--Thompson's transcripts were a resource for fans, not a substitute for the show--but the company was within its legal rights as the owner of the Buffy program. What it did was obnoxious, silly, and bad business, but it's hardly a threat to free speech. Right?

Don't be too sure. There is an inherent conflict between intellectual property rights and freedom of speech, a tension between your right to control a story you've written and my right to use it as raw material for my own work. Thanks to two trends, that tension is turning rapidly into a collision--one where more than the convenience of online Buffy fans is at stake.
Star Wars is a part of our culture; it's a shared experience. And as Jenkins points out, "If something becomes an essential part of our culture, we have a right to draw on it and make stories about it....The core question is whether First Amendment protections include a right to participate in our culture." And not just to participate, but to criticize: A law that prohibits a Star Trek devotee's homages to his favorite show also restricts a Star Trek hater's right to parody the program's militarism, its view of sex roles, or its vision of the future....

When the government tells us we can't use those scraps without permission from Disney, Fox, or the Sherwood Anderson Trust, it constrains our creativity, our communications, and our art. It tells us that we cannot draw on pop songs the way we once drew on folk songs, or on TV comedy the way we once drew on vaudeville; it says we cannot pluck pieces from Star Wars the way George Lucas plucked pieces from foreign films and ancient legends. The consequences are staggering. Imagine what would have happened if, 100 years ago, it had been possible to copyright a blues riff. Jazz, rock, and country music simply could not have evolved if their constituent parts had been subject to the same restraints now borne by techno and hip hop. [1]

But the chilling is bad enough. Americans are not mere passive consumers, dully absorbing images invented in distant corporate laboratories. We hatch our own ideas and compose our own stories, drawing on pop culture without absorbing it blindly. We should look with disfavor on any law that tells us to shut up and get back on the couch.