Saturday, October 20, 2007

Once More, With Lawyers (or, How to Kill Citizen Marketers)

It's nirvana for anyone who wants to build a base of passionate customer advocates.

Imagine if people were so excited about your product that they not only bought it and spent time with it and talked to their friends about it, but organized gatherings to get together and enjoy it - gatherings that then generated news coverage because of the passion of the fans, and were copied all over the country! Who wouldn't want that?

The last thing you'd do is pull the plug on the whole thing and tell those excited customers to go home, right?

Well, not when your product sits at an uncomfortable intersection of entertainment, licensing contracts, and intellectual property law. The product in this case is an episode of the television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer from 2001. While the series has inspired all kinds of intense fandom, this one stands out - it's a musical episode called "Once More, With Feeling," in which the cast of the show breaks out into song and dance numbers (and the plot actually explains why this is happening).

Fans loved it (and yes, I'm one of them). A CD of the soundtrack to the episode was released. A little out of the way bar I used to meet friends at for drinks in Washington played it regularly. And, at some point, the phenomenon became a 21st century Rocky Horror Picture show, with people arranging screenings where fans would come in costume, with props, and sing along. Here's a web site from the New York City incarnation of it.

What's really striking about it is that this all started with no input from 20th Century Fox Television, the show's owner; this was just fans - customers - who took it upon themselves to do it. And that's where the trouble started.

As you can see from that site, the sing-along events have been stopped. This was not a capricious move by Fox; they had been handed a six-figure bill from the Screen Actors Guild for residuals for performers in the episode. Fox didn't even realize the events were happening, or theaters were making money off of them. So they didn't really have much choice.

Joss Whedon, the creator of the series, has told fans that he's disappointed in this and wants to see the events start up again; Fox says they don't want to stifle it, but they can't allow it to go on without paying actors; and there are disputes between everyone involved, from the event organizer on up, about who exactly screwed up.

All of which made me wonder, "Who isn't benefitting from these screenings?"

The actors, of course, aren't collecting their residuals; of couse, with no events happening, they're still not (and a number of the shows stars have said that they loved that these things were taking place). It seems to me that the events are likely to spur some sales of Buffy DVDs and CDs, as current fans get more excited about it and new fans discover it.

And there's a whole big business around the series, which is one of those television shows that inspires intense loyalty among viewers; there are books, comic books, music compilations, action figures, and the like.

Given that it seems to me that the net effect of these sing-alongs was to create more demand for all things Buffy, and generate more money for everyone on the business end, and more exposure for everyone on the creative side.

This is an area where I think our laws about content and citizen marketers are on a collision course. Buffy fans going to a sing-along event don't think they're stealing money from actors; they feel that they are participating in a celebration of a shared bit of pop culture. And while Fox owns the show and the actors need to be paid for their work, who owns for pop culture space that's sprung up around it? Whatever the law says, the fans believe they have a stake in it.

With any luck, all involved here will figure out a way to get this back on track, to everyone's benefit. But there's a lesson here for marketers: when your product becomes something that customers are so passionate about that they will write about it, talk about it, sing along with it, create their own variations of it, and dress up like it, it's no longer entirely yours other than in a legal sense. All in all you'll probably benefit from that... but it does means giving up some control, not something that comes easy to any business.

Another factor will make these kinds of disputes more common: the 1998 US law that extended copyrights, often derisively (and aptly) referred to as the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act." Because there's big money in entertainment properties, copyright terms have been extended; things don't enter the public domain as quickly as they used to. Works with "corporate authorship," like movies and television shows, now don't enter the public domain until 120 years after they were created or 95 years after publication.

(As a side note, this is such a warping of the intention of intellectual property laws as they were initially conceived in the US that I would expect our country's founders to be horrified by their current incarnation. The goal was always to create a dynamic public sphere by balancing incentives for creators with public access to their work. Today, it's really about revenue protection.)

Without a vibrant public domain, citizen marketing is always going to be running afoul of the law, as the Buffy example demonstrates. Marketers who are serious about wanting to harness the passion of their customers need to be ready to not avail themselves of all the legal protections available to them; nothing kills customer passion like getting slapped down by the lawyers. Yes, you need to protect your intellectual property in reasonable ways, but you do need to factor your customer's point of view into your definition of "reasonable."

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