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Fandom, Parody, Copyright and Xanadu

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In the past year, a number of fan and parody sites have come under 
fire from the owners of the intellectual property they reflect upon. 
Both Paramount and Lucasfilm were painted as heavies early in the 
year when they forced the closure of large numbers of fan sites 
relating to Star Trek and Star Wars, respectively - despite the fact 
that these sites were, as a whole, beneficial to the owners. The two 
firms lawyer's argued that these sites were taking traffic (and thus 
advertising money) away from the 'offical' sites, but rational 
evidence indicates that most such traffic *originated* from the fan 
sites they were targetting. Despite the narrow, technical facts of 
property rights infringment, virtually every outside observer 
concluded that the companies had shot themselves in their feet.

The latest round of web site closure attempts, however, are both more 
ambiguous and disturbing. Several publishers have gone after parody 
sites, sites which take existing material and distort it for humorous 
or satirical effect. On the one hand, no one would ever argue that 
the original material has benefitted in any way, as one could with 
the fan sites. On the other hand, however, this action raises the 
spectre of censorship. The obvious question becomes, are the owners 
trying to protect their rights, or muzzle their hecklers? 

The most notable of closures, taking place this past week, is the 
attempt by King's Features Syndicate to shut down a site titled 
'Dysfunctional Family Circus' (http://www.spinnwebe.com/dfc/), which 
features original Keane artwork with reader-submitted captions. The 
cartoons are not linked from the King's site (which didn't exist at 
the time DFC began), which would give a 'reasonable use' argument, 
but rather were scanned in directly by the webmaster. Even given that 
it is parody, Galcik (the site's owner) will have a difficult time 
proving that he was acting within reasonable use. The submissions are 
edited for quality, but not content, and much of it is crude, rude 
and obscene - and invariably far funnnier than the original (in case 
you are wondering, yes, I have posted to it myself, under the name 

However: this site is a continuation of an earlier site, and an even 
earlier print 'zine feature, going back to the mid-1980s. It has been 
an underweb mainstay since the earliest days of the WWW. So why is it 
only coming under fire now, when they must have known about it long 
ago? Good question. 

Like many old, large corporations, KFS is having trouble adjusting to 
the WWW, and they seem to be confused themselves about what can and 
cannot be done. Like virtually everyone who has tried to conduct 
business online, they have gotten a black eye in the process, and 
they seem to be looking for someone to blame.

This brings us to Xanadu (if you were wondering), and what may be the 
most important reason for it of all. The Web, due to inherent 
limitations of its design, cannot reasonably track ownership of and 
royalties on intellectual property. What's more, too little material 
is currently in electronic form even now for effective use of 
commercial material to be made. Current Copyright law, which has 
become increasingly more restrictive (i.e., the extension of rights 
from 50 to 75 years) despite the greater flexibility possible under 
computerized systems. It will be necessary very soon to resolve these 
and other rights related issues, and soon, or the web will become an 
unusable morass of proprietary security and poorly maintained public 
domain material, swamped by litigation - indeed, one could say it is 
that already. Xanadu, which was designed to resolve all of these 
issues from the start, is the only reasonable way out of this growing 

PS: Spinnwebe (Galcik) has kept a careful record of the developments 
in the case, including links to most of the online media coverage. 
IMNSHO, it makes a good case study in web-related intellectual 
property issues. Take a look at the site (again, 
http://www.spinnwebe.com/dfc/) for more details.
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