IP Jungle Survival Guide

Gijon Mili / Stan Wayman / © Time Inc.

If this little pocket of humanity we inhabit that we like to call “the literary creative industry” were a dinner party, the main topic of conversation right now would be intellectual property. What a boring dinner conversation! you’re probably thinking, and you would be right if the talk was limited to lawyers and their legal-ish lawyer-speak and  hypothetical questions like an endless loop of the last scene of The People Vs. Larry Flynt. While “intellectual property” as a legal concept sounds stale and corporate, when you reconsider it to mean “all the things I create while I hunch over my drawing table and writing desk all weekend” it takes on new urgency.

Recent flare-ups on the subject in the comics world have brought about a raft of new ideas and “huh, I should have thought of that” moments, along with an expected raft of old-guard defensiveness and misunderstandings of the facts. I don’t think the flare-ups are evidence of any kind of centralized movement or counter-movement taking place in the field of creative property development, only a coincidental closeness of unrelated court cases and controversial IP development decisions. However, I think the result of these coincidences will be old-school consciousness-raising: the events under discussion will remain static but the future of creators’ relationships with their chosen avenues of production will be better informed, if not completely revolutionized. We’ve written here before about technology’s gift to publishing: an explosion of content and audience expansion that any other industry would envy, even as the traditional structures for introducing author to audience change. The same goes for IP ownership and development: the old way of centralizing the creative works of many into a corporate IP exploitation engine was yesterday. As it changes, those properties and their engines will remain in place while the next generation develops new multi-partner models that will give us an explosion of fun new ideas. We’re already seeing it in the projects we’re hired to work on here at Letter Better, and we can’t wait to see more.

In an effort to help out where we can, we’re going to run a series of posts on the subject of IP (again, just shorthand for “stuff you spend your time making”) with no planned schedule or frequency but across a variety of topics that seem to be of interest to creators. These are all informed by our professional experience dealing with these topics, not just things we’ve overheard in bars. We’ll devote a separate series of posts to the topic of things we’ve overheard in bars.

Many comments on this subject start with the author’s disclaimer that he or she is not a lawyer. I’ll spare you that nonsense because, 1) of COURSE I’m not a lawyer! If I was, I wouldn’t have time to letter comics, edit novels, or write blog posts about IP laws, and 2) since when do we need to have an advanced degree and a current paid position in a field in order to comment on it? Does everyone on ESPN have a degree in sports management? But qualifications of some sort are certainly in order, granted. Anything I do know about this topic comes from on-the-job experience at a major media company with highly valuable intellectual property. During the course of that work I was frequently called upon to address instances of unlicensed publications and distribution, trademark registration, and legal opinions on who has the rights to reprint or modify certain material. Anything discussed here has either come from that experience or from my own study of the actual laws on the books in order to help me on the job, and I’m intentionally not commenting on anything outside of that. It bears clarification that this all pertains to actual laws, rules, and practices, NOT individual interpretations of same in the course of specific trials. Judges and lawyers are human beings that often take wildly different views on which behavior supports or negates which argument in the context of which line found buried in phone-book-thick laws. Our creator friends reading this should take this as an educational overview, and not a replacement for help from a lawyer and literary agent when embarking on legal protection for your specific creative projects or, heaven forbid, when embarking on a legal defense of your creative projects.

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