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Comics & Copyright By Joshua Elder
On Jan. 15, the Supreme Court upheld a recent law extending the duration of a copyright 20 years beyond its previous limit. This is a major victory for companies like AOL/Time Warner and Disney – many of whose characters would have begun entering the public domain otherwise.
And the media conglomerates’ gain is the public’s loss. The Constitution gives Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This raises the question: does giving a corporation what amounts to perpetual copyright protection actually promote progress? The answer: of course not.
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Corporate characters – from Archie to the X-Men - are, by nature, static and unchanging. From a creative standpoint this is utter suicide, but from a business perspective it makes perfect sense. Characters that remain essentially the same over the years are easier to license and easier to account for on a balance sheet. The suits don’t care if that makes the characters irrelevant – as long as they still get a decent return on their investment. If the formula works, why risk changing it?
This is the antithesis of progress. It dooms the characters to a slow but steady decline into obsolescence, it turns them into “institutions” (read: characters that everybody knows but nobody cares about), and it keeps them out of the intellectual jungle that is the public domain – the one place where they might actually find a new lease on life. It also encourages companies to stop producing new ideas and instead concentrate on rehashing and revamping old ones. In the long run, this is as detrimental to the big media companies as it is to the consumer. The companies may be preserving the “integrity” of their characters, but what good will that do them if nobody cares about the characters anymore? For the comics industry – one so utterly and totally reliant upon franchise characters for its very existence – this is a form of slow suicide.
Thankfully Marvel refuses to let its flagship characters go quietly into that good night. With the launch of the Ultimate line, Marvel has found a way to have their cake and eat it too. The regular MU titles get to be the corporate standard bearers while the Ultimate line is freed to tell stories that actually mean something. Just compare Avengers with Ultimates. Avengers is a fine superhero comic that I enjoy reading every month, but I don’t wait breathlessly in anticipation for each issue like I do for Ultimates. The latter is simply a better book because it is able to step outside the choking confines of formulaic storytelling.
One of the earliest doom-filled predictions about the Ultimate line was that it would cannibalize sales of its MU counterparts. That couldn’t be more wrong. The Ultimate creators raised the bar fore their MU counterparts, but the old school writers and artists were up to the challenge. Amazing Spider-Man, New X-Men and Avengers are the best they’ve been in years. The quality is up and so are sales. As this example proves, a little competition can go a long way.
Bereft of an Ultimate-style line, the sales of the DC franchise characters are suffering. It’s true that Crisis did modernize and streamline most of DC’s marquee characters, but that was over 15 years ago and they’ve acquired a lot of new baggage since then. And to be honest, Crisis left a lot of the DCU’s history intact – creating almost as many continuity conundrums as it solved. DC needs to follow Marvel’s lead and create a line independent of the DCU where their flagship characters – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – can be freed to reach their full potential.
Creative freedom is absolutely necessary if Marvel and DC want to keep their franchise characters – and their companies - alive through the rest of this century. The courts have given them another 20 years of exclusive copyright. Let’s hope they make good use of it.