Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Do We Care About Creator Rights?

By Jay Stringer

There's been an issue eating at me for a week now. I've sent out emails talking to people about it, and each time I've said, "I'm not going to blog this.." And almost every time, they replied, "yes you will." Well, points to them, I guess.

Last week, while I was giving you an epic essay on Breaking Bad and The Wire, DC comics went and announced a whole load of prequels to the classic book WATCHMEN. I'm not happy that DC decided to sneak the news out while i was distracting the whole Internet with my essay. That's not playing fair.

As for the book itself, I hold WATCHMEN in just about the highest regard I hold anything. It would make my top five works of art/fiction in all formats. And yes, it had a shitty film made of it, but let's forget that, okay?

Now, this being major news about a comic book, and this also being the Internet, a few people had a few things to say. A week later, we seem to have reached a general consensus; "I don't really think they should do it, but they have the legal right, and I'll buy them."

So now, unbidden and demanded by nobody, I'm going to throw my own thoughts into the week-old discussion. I've shifted, rather quickly, to a hard line position. I think there is a fundamentally important issue at stake here, and one that people are choosing to ignore in order to get a monthly fix of capes, cowls and explosions.

When the news first broke, I was very much in the old "the book is on my shelf, nothing they do will change that," camp. But then I realised that was completely and utterly not the point. That school of thought is from a time when a writer cashed a cheque and gave permission for his work to be adapted into a film.

Then I veered into a shrug of the shoulders, "corporations will make money, let em do what they want, I can simply ignore it, like I ignore the film." That was the easiest road to take, and over the course of the past week it seems to be the road most people are taking (that is, those who aren't using the spectacularly cowardly, "I'm against it, but I'll still buy them." But the more I noticed people making this argument, the more it ate at me.

At this point, it seems the best defence we can muster for it is, "well they have the legal right to do it." If the best interviewers, commentators and journalists in the medium are willing to make that argument, I think we need to take a long hard look at ourselves. Lots of corporations have the legal right to get away with lost of things, and the same voices defending Before Watchmen on legal grounds may often be heard moaning about some of the things these other companies do.

Yes, they have a legal right. But lets examine where that comes from, for readers who may be new to the whole issue. In the mid-1980's Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons signed a contract with DC. The contract stated that, once WATCHMEN had been out of print for a year, the IP would revert to the authors. Implicit in that agreement, though sadly not stated clear enough, was the idea that, at some point the creators of the work should get their work back. At the time, there was no trade paperback industry for comics. No "graphic novel market." You didn't walk into you nearest book store and pick up a "graphic novel," so that you didn't have to slum it in a comic shop. You know what created that market? What gave the comics industry an extra leg with which to support itself? WATCHMEN. I've worked in a comic store, I've worked in several book shops, and WATCHMEN has always been in stock at them. So Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons signed a contract without knowing that their book was going to change the industry, they signed it based on the standard industry practices of the time. I imagine there are a lot of authors, both in prose and comic books, who've signed contracts over the last decade without foreseeing the game-changing implications of digital sales, where books never go out of print.

And that's what has stung these creators. Their book was meant to be out of print in a year, because it was a comic, but it's never gone out of print. 25 years later, DC is still publishing it, still making money off it, and this never looks likely to change. When this started to become clear, when Alan Moore saw that things were changing and his contract was based on an out of date paradigm, he tried to renegotiate the deal. DC refused, and Alan Moore went on a one-man strike from them. At this point, on principle, he even turns down credits and money when films are made based on his work. Some people say he's cutting off his nose to spite his face, I say he's being consistent; and precious few people in the industry can claim to be doing the same.

But let's ignore the legal debate for a moment.

Firstly, is there a creative reason for the prequels? A writer-friend (won't name names, unless he wants to) has discussed with me the very compelling lack of a need for these stories. WATCHMEN is structured in such a way that we already have all that we need. Something creators often use to throw some art and mystery onto their decision making is, "Well, now I have found the story." Some of the creators involved in these prequels have said the same. They weren't going to butcher someone else's baby, but, hey, they have a story. That's fine, but it supposes that it's their story to tell. I might have a fun James Bond story, but it doesn't make it mine to tell. In fact, nobody tell Ray Banks, but I've totally figured out a fifth Cal Innes book and sod it, I'm just going to decide that makes it mine to do.

And morally, which it seems to me is the real meat of this matter, where do we stand?

There were two authors on WATCHMEN. One of them, Dave Gibbons, isn't involved in the prequels but has given them a kind of blessing. He's going to be tactful and stand back. But the other creator, the 50% partner in this and the writer of those epic scripts, has been quite clear.

He doesn't want it. He doesn't want prequels, sequels, spin offs or movies. He wants his creator rights back. In an interview last week he said, "I don't want money, I want for this not to happen."

Can it be any more obvious what the authors wishes are?

I put it to you that we have a choice in this matter. We either respect an authors wishes or we don't. But every single one of the arguments for these books being right, good or, the worst of all, "okay," seems to completely sidestep this basic issue. When it does crop up, it's dismissed as Moore's fault. If he'd played nice, or if he'd be wiling to sit down and talk to DC, this might not have happened. But as I've already covered, the reason he doesn't talk to them is because of creator rights. The fact that he's on a one man strike doesn't make it any less valid of a strike. He's getting screwed over because he doesn't talk to them because they were screwing him over. At what point does that become his fault?

And if I'm arguing that we need to respect creator rights, then what of the creators involved in these prequels? Well, Brian Azzarello made his name on the critically acclaimed series 100 Bullets, a series for which he enjoys creator-rights (from DC) that have never been granted to Alan Moore for his work at the same company. Moreover, the creator-rights enjoyed by the younger generation of writers are a direct result of the work done by Moore. Darwyn Cooke is one of my favourite creators in modern comics, and he enjoys the freedom to release his PARKER adaptations in a market that was created by WATCHMEN with a level of control that comes as a result of Moore. And these are the creators who decide to get involved in Before Watchmen? I hope to Crom that we never see them preaching about creator rights in future.

I seem to be at a breaking point with DC comics. But the more I thought on it, the more I realised there was a very good reason why people don't want to think on it. It pulls on a loose thread that unravels to show us our own hypocrisy. We all know that the big two in comics treats creators poorly. They always have. We know that there are writers, artists, inkers, etc, who have died in poverty, or who are still alive but have no healthcare or money, because they've been screwed over systematically for our entertainment for 70 years. Moore is one of the lucky ones, he's actually made enough money out of the gig to be comfortable, but stood behind him are many graves and many debts. To casual readers out there who may not know the history, I'll mention some of the bigger ones; Steve Ditko co-created SPIDER-MAN. He's lived in reduced circumstances for forty years, despite creating MARVEL's biggest cash cow, because he wasn't given credit. Jack Kirby co-created most of the characters from the silver age of comics, and still doesn't receive the credit. The treatment of Kirby, by the way, is another issue that Alan Moore took a moral stand over with his employers. In THOR, SPIDER-MAN, X-MEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, THE FANTASTIC FOUR,THE HULK and IRON MAN, we see major franchises at the cinemas, for which Ditko or Kirby played a role in creation and were not credited, let alone given ownership.

As fans, we know this. We look the other way, decade on decade, so that we can get our thrills, and then we moan about cover price. So we moan about how much we have to pay to the company producing the work, but we've never once put out collective foot down over how much the company pay to the people who created these properties. We would rather look the other way, ignore the issue so we can get our explosions.

So, where does that leave us? Well, sure, you can mount a defence for Before Watchmen based on the fact that they have the legal rights to do it. You could also sidestep the whole issue by saying you don't really care about creator rights. However, I simply don't see a way to say you respect creators rights and argue that Before Watchmen is 'okay'. The two are fundamentally opposed.

Time to wrap this up before I annoy anyone else. I'm going to make some good from all of these thoughts. There are two organisations who can benefit, and who we should all give at least a moments thought to. The Hero Initiative provides a safety net for those who don't have one. For generations of creators who've worked without insurance, health care, creator-rights or pensions, the HI can step in and help them out. The second is the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund. The clue is pretty much in the name there; they provide legal aid to creators, including advice on the tricky issue of legal rights.

I'm not preaching for anyone else to do this. But for myself, I think the money that was going on reinforcing the mistreatment of creators will be better served going on supporting them.


Jerry Siegel said...

Soon as Ditko dies, Marvel will send him a check.

Scott D. Parker said...

(Oops, my response was too long. Breaking out into two posts.)

Well, I never thought I'd jump into this case, but I am.

Your main point: "However, I simply don't see a way to say you respect creators rights and argue that Before Watchmen is 'okay'. The two are fundamentally opposed."

My answer: Yes, you can.

Reason: It's safe to argue that, because of the way Moore and Gibbons were treated (contract signing, expectation of reversion of rights; never out of print; creators screwed), we now have creator-owned franchises within the big two (100 Bullets, etc.) and creator-owned comic companies. All of these things rose up b/c the big two ignored creators (Ditko, Schuster, etc.), made money off their creations, and never looked back. Up until Watchmen, it was just there. Watchmen's experiences was the demarcation line, the bright line in the sand that you can definatively say that there exists a "before" and an "after."

To make a comparison, here in America, we have the Amber Alert, a nation-wide alert system when a child or old person is kidnapped. It's on the news and on electric signs on the highway. Unfortunately, a young girl named Amber, who was kidnapped and killed, had to die before a nation-wide alert system was put in place. That family still has a hole in their lives, but a whole bunch of other familes do not.

Back to comics, it appears that the Watchmen debacle has basically created a Watchmen Alert. Every creator, bringing a potential property to any big company had better negiotiate some sort of creator rights or else face the same situation faced by Moore. Ignorance, at this stage, isn't an excuse. (Not saying Moore was ignorant in 1985; he just assumed something that turned out not to be true--that the book would ultimately go out-of-print.)

DC is in the business of entertainment and making money. Absolutely they will create prequels, sequels, to Watchmen (prequel to the Black Freighter?) because it is their property. Sure, the contract and their actions can be despised on the face of it, but we're talking a big company. They can do what they want. Morally right? Frankly, who cares, as long as you make money. They are making money and, for many, will be entertaining people.

Scott D. Parker said...

(Part 2)

Who may buy these titles? Folks who love Watchmen. Like you, I think the existing Watchmen book is perfect as it is. But, then again, I thought that of Star Wars pre-1999. Heck, I still think that. Indy Jones was fine with 3 movies. 2001 was good with 2 books/movies, not 4 total books. Dune? How many prequels have they written? My SF bookclub just finished Horus Rising, a prequel to this Warhammer 40,000 game. There are something like 22 books already written that only take you up to the beginning of the game. Our general consensus was this: the average SF reader probably will not like this book, but the average Warhammer gamer is going to devour it and the other 21. That's the kind of thing I see with these Watchmen prequels. Die-hard Watchmen-ites are going to loathe it, but a vast majority (key phrase) won't and will buy it. Some die-hards might even read a tale or two "just to see."

On to the new writers, I'll ask you this: George Lucas comes to you and asks if you'd be interested in writing Indy 5, you gonna turn him down? You have the chance to set things right, so to speak. I'd be on that in less than a second. Even if the new writers were/are die-hard Watchmen-ites, there are two considerations. Paycheck is one and fundamental. "Hey, Brian, you wanna write a new Watchmen prequel?" "Sure, just pay me." It goes just like this for anything: "Hey, Brian, you want to write a new [Name Anything]?" "Sure, just pay me." Two is the opportunity to "play in that universe." For some, the Watchmen universe is so richly dense and wonderful, why the heck not? There are scads of Star Wars and Star Trek novels out there written by authors playing in the Lucas sandbox. And who among us devoted fans to any universe--Star Wars, Dr. Who, Firefly, 20,000 Leagues, Gabriel Hunt--hasn't thought about a story or two? Heck, there's a new anthology centering around John Carter and his further adventures on Mars. Did ERB write them? Nope, but I'm curious enough to probably pick it up. And I'm re-reading ERB's books now ahead of the film.

So, to sum up this way too long response:
-DC can do whatever they want. They own the rights, even if they got said rights in an underhanded way. They don't really owe Moore and Gibbons anything. Sucks, but it's true. Sure the book as it is now is basically perfect and needs nothing extra. Since when has that stopped big companies? Forget the question "Should they?" They will. (see: Spider-man)
-Because of Moore experiences, new creators are now aware to negiotiate creator rights with their creations. Sucks for Moore, but great for future generations of creators.
-Writers of the prequels should not be chastised partly because it is their job to write comics and also they may just want to play in the Watchmen universe.
-Readers: die-hards will be mad, but the casual comic fan and/or Watchmen fan will read and enjoy these stories...providing that they are good.

Jay Stringer said...

Scott, here's the thing- I don't think your comments actually counter the bit you've quoted.

Your accurate in much of what you say, but again most of it is boiling down to the fact that DC has a legal right. I deal with that in the post, it's not the real point. The morality that keeps getting dismissed is the point.

You mention that WATCHMEN changed the industry and have following generations more rights. But that's also addressed in the post; creators who benefit from those right are involved in this hatchet job.

The point is that the creator has stated he doesn't want these to go ahead. Therefore I don't see, as per the part you quoted, how to reconcile respecting the creator with accepting Before Watchmen. They are directly opposing viewpoints.

Your question about Indiana Jones isn't like-for-like. You're asking if , in an instance when the creator of Indiana Jones came and asked me to join in, would I? Yes, of course. He created the property. If Lucas didn't own Indy, and made it clear he didn't want anymore to be made, and then Paramount came and asked me to write one against Lucas's wishes, no way would I want in on that.

The defense you're mounting seems again to be the "well they have a legal right," but that was one I mentioned right at the outset.

Scott D. Parker said...

Morality in the business world? Does it exist? Not in all cases. Should it exist?

"...the creator has stated he doesn't want these to go ahead. Therefore I don't see, as per the part you quoted, how to reconcile respecting the creator with accepting Before Watchmen. They are directly opposing viewpoints."

From a purely technical point of view, the creator no longer has any say-so in this franchise. While he certainly got screwed over, by taking the stand he did--bravo to him!--that took him out of the equation. Once on the outs, DC no longer had to listen to anything Moore said, pro or con. Not that they would have anyway, but still.

I see you point about Indy, Lucas, and Paramount. But, in your correct scenario, what you're saying is that you would turn down the paycheck that Paramount *is going to pay someone* just because Lucas doesn't want to make Indy X? I know I keep focusing on money, but that's what I come from in my day job. I am a tech writer and I work for an outsource company. Bigger companies hire mine to write stuff. We tech writers are told a standard and told to stick to it. But, when the Big Company comes in and wants to do something slightly different, I am suppose to remind them of their own standards. Then having done so, if I'm instructed to write against standards, I do (with permission).

While that's not like-for-like (I realized that as I wrote it), you can see where I'm coming from. These new writers, playing in the playground Moore created and now wants to shut down, have all benefited from the really bad hand Moore was dealt. But it's going to happen because the creator is no longer a player in this specific game. He took himself out, or, rather, retreated once he was screwed over. By taking himself out, he, frankly, no longer has a say. Rough justice, to be sure, to see the flower of one's creativity cheapened and taken in directions you didn't want, but that's the business world. He's our case study. I don't think the new writers should be chastised for doing a job, taking home a paycheck, and, perhaps, having a little fun in the Watchmen world.

Jay Stringer said...

"By taking himself out, he, frankly, no longer has a say"

But, again, he took himself out because of this very issue. It's not that he took his bat and ball home to be awkward, he took it home because they were messing him over.

It's not a case of Moore shutting down some playing, as you said. He wrote a book. It had a beginning, a middle and an end (not always in that order) and he doesn't want someone to come along and mess with his complete story.

Again, all the defences here keep coming back to law and money, you're still in the very start of my post, saying that they have the legal right. This avoids the central issue; we either respect the creator or we don't.

Ive yet to see an argument that reconciled Before Watchmen with respecting the creator.

"But, in your correct scenario, what you're saying is that you would turn down the paycheck that Paramount *is going to pay someone* just because Lucas doesn't want to make Indy X?"

Yes, absolutely. Just because a company is going to pay someone dirty money isn't a reason for anyone to take it. I'd rather stick to having a day job sat at a desk manning a phone.

Scott D. Parker said...

Yes, this very issue is why he took himself out. They screwed him, he got mad, and took himself out of the equation. It doesn't really matter how/why he's out of equation, he's out. Thus, we no longer need to listen to him and his thoughts on his creation. I guess it comes down to that.

That Moore does not want Before Watchmen to be published is a fact. He wants *his* version of the universe to be the only version. Should we respect his wishes? In a perfect world, yes. In a perfect world, he would have had the rights since 1987 and he can franchise and do whatever he wants with it.

But we don't live in a perfect world. In our world, folks get screwed all the time. Is it fair? Nope.
Charles Dickens had the same problem, too. As soon as his books were published, playrights changed his story. Over here, dubious publishers would take his books, republish them, and not give Dickens a dime. He was pissed, and rightly so, and he tried to shut them down. Not necessarily the same type of thing, but its still in the ballpark. Did all the Americans over here who read the unauthorized versions of Dickens' stories not respect the creator? Yes and no. Yes in that they may not have purhcased an authorized version, no because they still enjoyed a good story.

I guess it comes down to a question: do you want to be entertained with a clear conscious or be entertained without conscious?
--A clear conscious would go like this: Oh! New Watchmen books. Cool! Oh, wait. Moore doesn't want them to have even been published. Guess I'd better not buy or read them (or support the institutions that promotes them...comic stores, comic companies, movie studios?). Thus, I would forgo a personal entertainment for a larger cause.
--An unclear conscious would be the opposite: Oh! New Watchmen books. Cool! Oh, wait. Moore doesn't want them to have even been published. Whatever. When's the first issue come out?

That's a bit strict in my definition, but it's the gist of the thing. Does a buyer care from whence or how a piece of entertainment arrives for his consumption? For the larger, general population, no. Does the world care that many small farmers raise coffee trees to send to Starbucks only for them to overcharge for coffee? No. Does the comic book world care that Moore thinks these new prequels should never be written? No. Should we? Probably yes. Will we? Only if there's a reason. That Moore doesn't like the idea is, for the most part, not reason enough.

Would I care if Paramount made Indy X without the blessing of Lucas? Maybe. Would I go see Indy X? Yes. Would I participate with Paramont if they were to ask me? Yes. Guess that's my final answer.

I understand your point, I see where your coming from, and applaud you for bringing this to my (and the DSD readers) attention. Frankly, I didn't know this about Moore and his thoughts on the prequels although I could have guessed. Since Watchmen isn't one of my cherished, all-time favorite things, I'm a bit ambivalent on this particular subject. I'm ambivalent on the Wuthering Heights sequel and the Gone with the Wind sequel and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Perhaps I'm asking this question as a corollary to yours: is anything sacred? I'm thinking not.

Terrence said...

It's interesting to see both sides of this argument. I just wanted to add something to the mix, something that was glossed over in the original argument. And that is, this isn't a cut and dried creator/good, corporation/bad scenario. Moore might have expected the rights to come back to him, and it's easy to then take that concept and jump forward to today with it, but the fact is, the rights didn't go back to him precisely because DC turned the Watchmen into something HUGE. Something bigger than anyone could have expected. And before you say, well that was Moore and Gibbons who did that, it wasn't. You say yourself, DC created a new market. DC did that. They hustled that Graphic novel into bookstores, a blackhole for comics at the time. They did such a great job, that today, most fans don't know that was ever a monthly title. Everyone just knows the book. Had Moore gotten the rights back, would we know the Watchmen today? Would there be a movie or prequels? Would the bloody pin be a comic book icon? No. And you know how we know that? Because that scenario has played out hundreds of times in the music industry. Bands take their new ablum and leave, or sue for control of their music, etc and 99 times out of 100 they disappear into the ether.

I don't think this is a counter argument to anything really. Just another piece that factors in and should be considered.

Jay Stringer said...

True, a large part of the reason that WATCHMEN is a phenomena that 'transcends comics ' (a phrase that DC marketing men like to use) is down to DC. They absolutely take the credit for turning it into the sales behemoth that it is, and that's the very reason the right have never gone back to the people who created it.

Trouble is, as you said, it's an aspect of the case rather than anything that defeats the moral issue.