Fans: Stop giving companies free labor - they don't want it

There's a story going around the net about how CBS is being awful to a group of fans. The folks at Stage 9 created a virtual tour of the Enterprise D in startling detail. I saw videos of this project and was stunned at the level of accuracy they put into this effort. The articles mention that Stage 9 put in two years of effort into creating a magnificent tribute to the set designs and creativity of the show.

Stage 9 never intended to sell this, but anyone who has seen this play out knows exactly what happened next.

Techdirt has a great article about this: "CBS Bullies Fan Star Trek Project To Shut Down Despite Creators' Pleas For Instructions On Being Legit". Basically CBS shut down the project without giving Stage 9 any recourse to fix the project. "To keep the project alive, the team were prepared to make any changes ordered by CBS. Sadly, CBS said that the project could not continue in any form, no matter what changes were made. They provided no further details and, as noted by Eurogamer, did not indicate how Stage 9 had violated the fan art guidelines previously published by CBS and Paramount".

This is an altogether familiar tale. A group of excited fans gets together to create something using recent cultural shows / movies / books, the company that ostensibly owns the material starts to get wind of this, and the project gets shut down because the company takes offense that someone else might be making something without them getting proper remittance.

Folks, I have a simple strategy for how not to get burned by this in the future. A fool-proof way to ensure that you won't be served with cease-and-desist letters from lawyers for applying your creative energies to folks who couldn't be less enthused with your machinations. A concrete way to engage with companies and their "intellectual property".

Here it is:

Unless you're getting paid by the company stop giving them free creative labor!

Let me restate that for the folks in the back of the room:

Unless you're getting paid by the company stop giving them free creative labor!

Companies like CBS, Disney, and the like pay people to create material and you're busily giving them your creative energies for free. Why? Are you that much of a fan of their material that you would rather interfere with hardworking folks getting paid to create that stuff you ostensibly like?

Now you might counter "but I have these ideas about how these characters could interact" or "I think there are more untold stories that can be told". And that's fine. Write up a proper pitch letter, find an agent, and see if they'll pay attention to you. Because it's pretty clear that they don't want the free stuff anymore.

They're not interested in your faithful recreation of that ship you saw in that show. They're not interested in your "fan fiction" or "fan theories". They have a department of highly-skilled creative folks who get paid to do this sort of thing. Never mind that the last time they did an actual walk-through of The Enterprise D it was over 20 years ago and used Quicktime. Nope, they don't care. They'd rather someone fire up an emulator for a Macintosh System 8 machine than have you see their content for a second without a proper license.

The proper way to be a fan, it seems, is to present your wallet on demand and pick up whatever it is that they're selling. Proper fans buy several copies of their favorite shows over the years: physical disc, streaming, and whatever format they're offering in the future. Proper fans own the T-shirt. Proper fans buy the action figures for their children (and their children at heart). Proper fans buy the book, the soundtrack, and the plushies.

Proper fans don't get legal involved. They don't create things that the company pays people to create. They don't dress-up as their favorite character unless the company sells that costume. They don't think about the material outside of "gosh, wouldn't it be neat to head to Thinkgeek and pick up some more stuff. Wouldn't that be grand?".

So you have a choice. You can engage like a "proper fan". And there's nothing wrong with that. That's the way that most folks engage with this sort of content. It's the path that companies encourage.

Or you can engage with folks who actually care about people engaging with their content. They license their material under permissive licenses that explicitly tell folks how they can engage with their content. They're things like Eclipse Phase which allow folks to remix the material as long as it isn't for commercial purposes. It's things like Pepper&Carrot that allow folks to do with it as they like (with attribution).

Because it's clear that a company like CBS would rather pay you to be a fan than have you do it for free. And as Harlan Ellison so famously and succinctly put it, whenever a company expects you to do free labor the proper response is "Fuck You, Pay Me!".