The other day, I saw a post that read something like, "Fanfiction is just digitally-published indie writing, once you take away the consideration of copyright." And this made a lot of sense to me. I've previously struggled to quickly convey the way that fanfiction culture manifests, and I do find it very similar to digitally-published original writing. Some really awful and gross subjects can be glorified, but marginalized creators have less censorship to worry about, and more of a voice.
Then, I challenged myself to think about everything in fan culture that way. And, after a while, I began to wonder: what was it about copyright that specifically prevented fanworks, anyway?
In case you don't know, copyright began in the late 1700s, when book-publishing was the coolest, newest thing on the block. It was created in order to prevent others from printing out copies of someone else's book and selling them without giving the author any of the money. Which, obviously, that's bad. I don't think anyone would argue otherwise. If you're trying to sell your art, and someone is selling copies for cheaper, or giving them away, then that sucks!
So... Copyright was born. Literally the right to copy!
But I'm talking fanworks right now. And fanworks aren't copying. A fanwork is created from scratch. It's a new creation.
Yes, it uses the same characters, but it's not a 'copy'. At least, not by any definition of 'copy' that I know. Fanart and fanfiction may take the character designs, concepts, and setting, but the artist still has to come up with everything else; colors, poses, composition, interactions, dialogue, prose, what have you, plus doing all the actual work to create the damn thing. And, yes, perhaps the fanwork wouldn't be as popular if not for being a fanwork (we've all seen how original character art tends to flop on social media compared to fanart), but no idea in all of human history is original. Any piece of work that has ever had fanwork was inspired by something else, in some way. I'm sure that, for example, Sayori from Doki Doki Literature Club wouldn't be as popular as she was if she wasn't inspired by Yui Hirasawa from K-On! And I'm sure that lots of pieces of art wouldn't be as popular if it wasn't using Doki Doki Literature Club characters. There's no place that a solid line in the sand can be drawn.
Most anything big enough to be piggybacked on is popular enough that piggybacking is very unlikely to be an actual issue to their bottom line, anyhow. And the things that do actually affect their bottom line; the things like, say, PayPal taking a huge chunk of business transactions that take place on their platform; don't see nearly as much social pushback, much less a law in place to prevent it. Because, surely, the teenager making a couple bucks selling fanmerch at a convention is the REAL danger here.
So, fanwork violates copyright. All of these new creations could be deleted off the face of the earth, should some dickwad feel like making an enemy out of fandomgoers. Even though none of it is copying. Because, at some point, copyright began to encompass the idea of a 'derivative' work; a very loosely-defined term that has to be turned into an issue of black and white in order to be enforced.
Copyright was made to address a different issue, during a different time. In the modern era, you don't need the wealth of resources you did during the 1700s to be a creator. You can make just about anything you want with just a computer (and maybe a few hundred bucks' worth of other stuff, if you're getting fancy), and then share it with the world via the internet. But copyright remains, still wielded despite its outdated nature. Creation is easier than ever, ideas and inspiration are everywhere around us, but you're not allowed to use pop culture as inspiration for art. You either start from scratch, or you wait 70 years after the author croaks it for the thing to become public domain, if you're lucky.
Yes, if you're lucky. Because copyright is abusable. Really damn abusable. Why else do you think Disney pumps out these shitty live-action remakes? Why we live in an era of sequels? Yes, these sorts of things don't technically extend the copyright of the original creations, but they are providing the creators with new copyrightable material, with the same characters and concepts. Corps want to be able to milk their creations for as long as they can, because it's "theirs" (despite this idea being in the head of millions of people), and just because they can.
And digital stores profit off these sorts of laws in a scummy way, too. Places like Steam, they technically give you liscences to play a game, not a game. (Imagine how stupid that would sound if applied to physical copies.) So, you're limited in what you can do with what you bought; you can't lend it to a friend, or give it away as a gift; and you still can't resell it or get a refund. And you can't unconvince me that this is because corporate pigs want to sell you multiple of the same thing. Why sell only one copy of Minecraft, when you could have one person buy it once on Switch, and then once on PC? Why make your new hardware able to play old games, when you could repackage and resell the same old game over and over?
Is this what copyright is? 'Protecting' multimillion-dollar corporations from the horror of not being able to sell the exact same thing to the exact same person multiple times?
Well, yes. Because I left something out of my brief retelling of copyright history: it was devised as a replacement for an expiring censorship-based monopoly system. It was designed by a business, for a business. No fucking wonder why it never seems to put small artists first.
All of this isn't even going into the topics of copyright being wielded out of spite (you've most likely heard about this in the context of YouTube), big players violating copyright without fear of punishment (think politicians who play music at their rallies without permission), and the amount of technically-legal scams that big corporations use against small creators (like the S.A.D. scam). And despite all of this, despite all of this bullshit, the thing that copyright is trying to prevent is still running rampant. Surprise! Fanmerch is being made and sold. Piracy websites exist en masse. Shock, horror! Meanwhile, movies and games still have big budgets, and starving artists don't have the ability to pose a serious threat if they're ripped off. Everything that copyright promises to protect, and everything it promises to prevent, is present in the modern day, where copyright is regularly and systematically failing.
I'm not saying copyright should be abolished entirely. I think its original purpose was damn good. It just needs to be reworked, and it needs to be reworked yesterday. Amongst other things, things that would need to be changed would be the definition of 'derivative work' to give fandom some room to breathe, and the duration of copyright to be much shorter.
In the meantime, stop assuming that laws are always based in morality. The law oftentimes only supports the hoarding of money, and that includes capitalizing off of passion and creativity.
Information wants to be free, and you can be damn sure that includes pop culture.