Big company’s abuse of the work of smaller “indie” companies or individuals is, I’m sure, an issue that’s been around awhile. It’s not until now, though, that occurrences are finally being brought well into the public’s attention, specifically when it comes to people making their living mostly on the internet. There’s been a couple of instances recently in which big companies have been taking advantage of their size to make ridiculous claims in the form of both content theft and trademark bullying. In the spirit of continuing to bring these to the public’s attention, I wanted to talk about them both here.
Jonathan Coulton vs. Glee – Baby Got Back
This one is old news by now, but it’s still a big deal. For unfamiliar parties, FOX’s show Glee used, basically verbatim, Coulton’s arrangement of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back. The arrangement is so close as to actually use some of JoCo’s altered lyrics, specifically “Johnny C’s in trouble”. The current status of the claim is essentially that he’s out of luck; the general license under which he released the song doesn’t cover arrangements. This means that unless Coulton can prove FOX used his actual track in the recording, they can use the arrangement at will without any credit to him necessary.
JoCo in Right Channel, Glee in Left Channel
JoCo’s solution so far has been of the chin-up variety, focusing mostly on getting out the word that this moral gray-area of content theft is a problem. His final action was the cheeky re-release of his arrangement of Baby Got Back, which he re-named “Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)”. All proceeds through February go to the VH1 Save the Music Foundation and the It Gets Better Project, a reflection of what Glee is supposed to be representing. Classy move, IMO.
It’s still to be seen whether it can be proved FOX used his actual recording, which is the only technically legal leg Coulton may have to stand on.
M.C.A. Hogarth vs. Games Workshop – “Space Marine”
This one is fresh off the press. Independent science fiction writer M.C.A. Hogarth is being accused of trademark infringement by the table-top game developer Games Workshop for the title of her new book, Spots the Space Marine. They claim that the phrase “space marine” is now theirs, by virtue of the fact that they’ve recently started publishing books (GW is well known for their game Warhammer 40k, whose main players are space marines, as are the main characters of their new books). Apparently GW’s already jumped on the trademark bullying bandwagon when it comes to any game that claims to have space marines in it, and now they’re simply moving on to other types of media. Amazon, who was selling Spots, took it down at GW’s request.
To me, the ego on these people at Games Workshop is insulting; it’s unclear to me how one could trademark a common science fiction concept – the space marine – that’s been around for decades. A two-second Google search brings up a Wikipedia article on nothing other than the space marine in science fiction, in everything from books, to games, to television. What gives them the idea that they can no lay claim to something that’s been around for decades before Warhammer? The literal phrase “space marine” aside, the concept of military in space is a staple of every science fiction game a military-related book I can think of!
Unfortunately since Hogarth is a relatively small name, she doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer to defend herself (or rather, the money it would take to hire a lawyer would far out-weight how much she’s made with the book). Outside of making a plea for help or suggestions, there’s not much she can logistically do at the moment. The good news is that as of today, the EFF has been speaking with her, and it looks like she might get the help she needs over this ridiculous claim.
When you’re a small company or an indie artist without deep pockets, you just can’t compete with larger company and their legions of lawyers. Jonathan Coulton was forced to grin and bear the jackassery of FOX, and Hogarth is being forced to put up a fight just to use a common science fiction trope. How is this a way to encourage creative content and to encourage entrepreneurs to try new things? Some might argue it’s not FOX or Games Workshop’s job to encourage others to do well, rather it’s their job to make money. My response would be to ask how nickel-and-diming tiny artists in ways that are either clearly unethical or selfishly-outlandish makes them much money at all? Also, how truly naiive of me would it be to propose that making moral decisions like crediting an artist for his work and not trademarking science fiction would just be a decent thing to do?
What we can do, at the very least, is make these abuses of small-time internet artists as public as possible, indicating how common it is, or it is becoming. We can encourage companies like Amazon – who had no legal reason to take down Spots the Space Marine – to stand up for the them instead of blindly bowing to the larger companies. And you can always lend moral support to the artists having to go through it.
What are your thoughts on the morality of these liberties being taken? Or is morality irrelevant when it comes to business?
Cover image from Wired.com