Monday, February 1, 2016

On amateur online content and copyrights (the Fine Brothers case)

This is something that I've been reflecting upon for a while and now we've had another instance of controversial monetization and attempt at IP registration, so I believe this post is appropriate.

Long story short: a group of YouTubers called "Fine Brothers" who specialized in "reaction videos" (videos in which you film yourself reacting to things you're reading/watching/playing/whatever) attempted to register the "reaction video" format under the "React" brand with the goal of franchising the brand to others. People got angry and there was a huge backlash against the Fine Brothers.

Dealing with money in this world is very dangerous. If you have something for free, whenever someone starts charging for it the relationship between content/service provider and customer/viewer simply isn't the same anymore. If you do it the wrong way you run a very high risk of being seen as a sellout, like the Fine Brothers here. A possible analogy would be to paid mods. Recently in the sim racing community there have been attempts of selling mods and this has sparked great controversy.

Generally speaking, the customer will be more welcoming of paying money when the payment is labeled as a donation and it's not enforced. The donor is effectively a benefactor, s/he does it because s/he wants to. Whenever these content providers go payware, the public's view on them changes almost overnight. Few are supportive, most aren't. We seem to have a sense of community online that we don't IRL, but we also sometimes take for granted the stuff we can get online for free and don't even drop a word of appreciation to the talented people who create it.

The Valve payware system, for example, was pretty bad, because it was obvious that Bethesda wanted to capitalize on the huge Skyrim modding community and wanted their slice of the pie, after all it's their game, if someone is charging for additional content, they are entitled a share of the profit, aren't they? It was a shameless attempt at earning easy money. The modder got a very small share, because of the risk: Valve, as publisher of the paid mod, runs a risk when they allow you to publish your payware content on their platform. The Steam shares could be a lot less draconian to content providers (a reason EA left Steam), but that's how it is.

Back to the Fine Brothers, I've found their attempt ludicrous because they didn't seem to understand under which conditions you can trademark something. A product can be trademarked only when it's one's own creation and it has a distinctive trait not possessed by anything else. For example, you can't really trademark the "reality show", but you can trademark Big Brother, MasterChef, Cake Boss, Survivor, The Voice, and so on. What did the Fine Brothers offer to the public that others didn't? You can find these sorts of videos everywhere. In fact, John Boyega's friend recently posted a video showing the Star Wars' actor's reaction to his appearance as Finn in a lightsaber-wielding scene during The Force Awakens' last trailer. A reaction video is less a "format" and more a "concept". What The Fine Brothers tried to do was akin to trademarking the Let's Play, the unboxing videos, the vlog, and, speaking in TV terms, the talk show, the soap opera, the TV series, and so on. And they've got a well-deserved backlash for that.

Monetization online can be a very dangerous path to tread, and we've seen here yet another chapter with terrible consequences. Above all, the Fine Brothers' reputation will be tarnished for a long time. And these controversies won't stop here.

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