By Renchamp 16 Comments
A few weeks ago I participated in a forum in which comic book readers weighed in on the ethics of pirating. I couldn’t help but notice a severe misunderstanding as to what rights are ultimately being infringed upon when comic books (or any form of media) are pirated. I hope to shine a bright light in this area to make the topic absolutely clearer during this two-part written excursion.
For starters, the United States Congress is granted the power in the US Constitution “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8. Yes, we used to capitalize everything.) 17 U.S.C. Chapter 1 was passed to enumerate the protections granted to a copyright holder.
And what exactly is a copyright? A copyright is a protection for artistic ideas that have been made available to people. To get one you basically need an original work/idea embedded in a method of tangible expression that can be observed or enjoyed. (Paraphrased very loosely from 17 U.S.C. § 102.)
How do you get a copyright?
The idea must be an original. In our comics context, let’s take Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s “Saga.” I can’t envision anybody who reads it being able to point to any other media source and say: “Direct rip-off of such-and-such!” I mean, where else are you going to find an oddly sexy death-dealing spider lady? You could probably divine influences from certain aspects of the book but can you find these exact characters, exact scenarios, exact everything anywhere else? Nah. No way.
The bar for original expression is pretty freaking low, too. All courts and Congress require is a “modicum of creativity.” Modicums are pretty small. In addition, courts recognize that they are not proper critics for art. Almost anything – almost – can be considered an original idea.
The idea must be able to be enjoyed or reviled. Examples of tangible expression include movies, books, music (written and recorded), and even some dance routines. Back to “Saga,” Image prints the book for you to purchase somewhat monthly, as well as an option to collect many stories in one volume via trades. In addition, your computer lets you see the story unfold on many-sized screens.
Lastly, isn’t there some registration that must be done to get the copyright? Nope. Not at all. Work is copyrightable as soon as it is reduced to a form of media. That’s right: As I write this my copyrightable material expands. This very sentence is copyrighted. This next sentence is going to be copyrighted as I write it. Go ahead, join the fun and write down an original thought and enjoy the fact that you have a copyright.
Registration is basically a way to give notice to the world that the owner will sue you into the ground if you even think about stealing their stuff. That © is no joke. Also, if you want to sue for perceived infringement then you need to have registered your work. So, even if “Saga” weren’t federally registered it is still protected by copyright laws. (A look inside each issue shows it is registered while recognizing some fair use rights.)
Since we have tackled the copyright granted to “Saga” (in a very watered down sort of way), what does this copyright get these and any other creators? Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have several rights granted upon putting their work to paper. First, they have the right to make a copy of “Saga.” They have obviously chosen to do so since our wonderful staffers are able to review them. This creative duo also has the right to make derivative works based on “Saga,” which means that they could make the story into a dang movie if they wanted. They also have the right to sell their originals, copies, and derivative works in any legal way they see fit. Lastly, they have the right to publicly display their work. (All taken from 17 U.S.C. § 106.)
Here’s the kicker: These rights are exclusive unless permission is given. You don’t have any of these rights in their work. Say you buy a copy of the first issue. You DO NOT have the right to make a copy to give away to others – like allowing your copy to be pirated/file-shared. (Lending is fine. Sadly, giving out your online account information is not fine. See my blog on digital comic rights.) You DO NOT have the right to come up with different ways of telling the story, like making your own faithfully adapted commercial short film. (Fan fiction and YouTube videos can be interesting exceptions.) You DO NOT have the right to sell copies you make of your bought copy. You can sell your copy. You can trade your copy. You can burn your copy. You cannot sell copies of your copy. You DO NOT have the right to post copies in public – like scanning and posting full pages online. (Which, by the way, is completely against our site rules for users and which the staff can do because they have permission.)
In sum, the creators have the constitutional and statutory right to disperse their work in any way they see fit. Vaughan and Staples have decided to release “Saga” through Image. This is, so far, an exclusive deal. They also release the books digitally online in accord with an agreement Image has with various digital producers and peddlers. Anything you do that goes against these enumerated laws is infringing upon the rights of the creators. Screw the bottom line – you are taking rights away that are to solely belong to the team of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.