Asher Elbein’s excellent piece in The Atlantic is worth reading just to consider the nature of pop culture –our modern mythology– and our ownership thereto.
I’ve included it in the Crisis of Infinite Star Treks series because reading it helped distill two issues:
If a ‘Star Trek Canon’ Exists, Legal Ownership Belongs to CBS/Paramount
Not only that, they can change it, ignore it, or otherwise do with the ‘canon’ what they will. They own it in a very real and legally binding way.
This is what I love about Elbein’s article: it elegantly points out the fiction that fealty to the creators’ canon is really fealty to the ideas holding favor within a given IP’s fan community. In fact, as the concept goes, the canon awkwardly resides with the fans no matter how many authors are successively granted the creative keys to the kingdom by the corporate owners.
No corporation is beholden to this vague and inconsistent concept.
This cold, hard fact is well known by fans — and perhaps because their lack of power is so evident upon inspection, it can touch a nerve. Fans may well cry foul and further inveigh such deviations from their interpretation of canon will bring financial ruin. This prediction depends on the assumption that the fan base is the profit base. But what many fans fear more than anything is that the corporate owners may change ‘canon’ and build their profit base away from the parts of the IP the fans . It might be bigger and might leave some of the fans behind.
This is the fear touched on within my second article from last December. And to be clear, I think fans have cause to point out violations to canon. They might be pointing to elements of the narrative that created fans in the first place. It’s also not a wise idea to ignore long-term fans in pursuit of immediate profits as that can erode one’s profit base. But as I also point out in that article, Paramount is hell-bent to extract more profit from its Star Trek IP. It seems to be developing a formula for doing so and if we long-time fans aren’t on board for their take on space opera, than we can go watch re-runs for all they care: as far as their bean counters are concerned, they’re growing the fan base.
Again, I think this could be short-sighted because there should be ways to meet the fans’ wants economically. Not only that, fans are no longer content to simply be passive consumers of IP — at least the fans which brands like Star Trek should want, which brings us to…
There has to be a way for fans to participate in Pop Culture Storytelling
Sorry, corporate guys and gals. You’ve already let go of some mythical absolute that your IP exists solely as a profit center where you can control its every iteration in the public sphere. You enjoy the benefits of memes, remixing, and re-interpretation of your ideas to spread the IP and increase its value. In fact, you can and will reap those benefits. You can and certainly will make sure people other than you can’t reap the financial benefits of the IP improperly, but when it comes to restricting eyeballs and remixes and musings, much of that toothpaste is out of the tube by your own design.
That’s what sticks in the craw of many fans when it comes to the Axanar lawsuit. To go full Warner/Chappell Music after letting fan productions exist and flourish is something fans rightly cry foul over. These are our folktales. These are the myths of our time — and the tools of our time allow us to discuss and re-tell these folktales in a multitude of ways. Our society says you can make a living from this manner of knowledge work and corporations clearly make a tidy sum doing so. Is it really so surprising that the most ardent fans are inspired to create themselves?
A counterargument –a very compelling and quite legal one– goes back to point number one: these stories aren’t in the public domain. Use Star Trek and similar fan-fueled IP to create your own space opera. Heck, Indiana Jones exists in part because Spielberg and Lucas wanted to do a Bond film and started brainstorming about what kind of derring-do would get them globetrotting. But I do think that the urge to honor the object of your fannish affection and the urge to create something anew inspired by fannish affection are different impulses — and perhaps the object of another blog post. Suffice to say now, I imagine the most popular tales 10,000 years ago were passed around campfires far more readily than entirely new tales were concocted. A tale enthralls us, and we retell it, gradually with more flourishes. That a corporate entity owns tales and the rights to retell said tales is a relatively recent invention.
The storytelling urge is deeply human and very powerful. It will not be legislated or sued out of existence. The aforementioned tools are Promethean in their disruptive potential. I’m not saying it’s an easy path, but the corporate titans need to make peace with the fact that we mere mortals have fire. Better to work with us about how and where we’ll use it or too many people will get burned.
At the same time, I agree with Asher Elbein: canon is personal. For those keepers of fandom flames, I feel your pain. Just ask me about my ups and downs watching the new Doctor Who. But in the end, it’s not my restaurant. I can be the best regular diner at that restaurant. I might even influence them as to what they include and don’t include on the menu. Maybe I even re-create some of their dishes at home. But even though I can ‘vote with my feet,’ I don’t own the restaurant.