Of copyright, IP and product licensing

I’ve been watching a semi-interesting forum discussion going on since the weekend

In essence, some are getting upset over the fact that CBS, who now own the rights to the Star Trek franchise world-wide, have apparently “clamped down” on Trek merchandise for sale in SL, with the result that at least one creator has had all wares removed from vendors and the Marketplace, and may have also been banned.

While one may initially feel sympathy for those involved, it has to be said – as several have in commenting on the forum thread itself – that at the end of the day, copyright is copyright, period. Just because the holder happens to be a major entertainment conglomerate doesn’t make the fact that in building and selling content derived from their products, and thus potentially impinging on their copyrights, any less “wrong” than finding the guy on the next parcel over to yours is hard at work copying your own original builds.

Some of those expressing upset at the move do so on the basis that CBS (and before them, Viacom / Paramount) may have flip-flopped over matters in the past, and that holders of other franchises are more lenient. Sadly, none of this matters a jot. Nor does the issue of “fan loyalty” or any other argument.

The major issue in this matter, and the one that gets little or no mention in the topic, is that of licensing.

The fact of the matter is that over the years those holding the Star Trek franchise have made a considerable amount of money through licensing deals with other companies, allowing the latter to make Trek-related products (both real and digital) wither exclusively or in cooperation with others. These deals generally involve a significant upfront payment from the licence holder, usually coupled with a royalties payment scheme based upon unit sales.

As such, while CBS / Viacom / Paramount may well have wibbled over some matters, that licences have been granted at the exchange of large amounts of money, they do actually have an obligation to ensure said licences are protected, period. It doesn’t matter if the person in violation is a fan or not.

There are many great Trek-related (and other franchise-based) models and other goods on sale in SL. While there is no doubting the skill and dedication of those making them, many nevertheless are open to accusations of copyright / IP infringement

Some posters in the thread are calling for LL to get involved in matters. Yet the fact is, LL do not need to involve themselves in matters. I’d actually suggest that, on balance, it is far better that they don’t get involved in this, or any other licensing situation in terms of negotiations over rights even if they were so minded, as it is very likely that things would not end well for anyone.

A far better solution, as some have suggested, is for the Trek fans themselves to address the matter with CBS – and the roadmap for them doing so has already been drawn. At the end of 2010, the Battlestar Galactica community faced an identical situation Universal Studios took issue with BSG-related goods being sold in SL. At the time the fans responded by engaging with Universal and discussing the situation with them.

The result was that in February 2011, Universal Studios agreed to allow BSG-related merchandise to remain available in SL, so long as it was not being sold for personal profit / gain. One might question how actually effective this arrangement has been (there are admittedly a fair proportion of BSG-derived items on active sale in the Marketplace), but the arrangement at least leaves people knowing where they stand, and that those persisting in selling franchise-related merchandise which may be subject to licence arrangements elsewhere and / or are liable to be looked upon as copyright/IP infringing would know precisely where they stand.

At this point in time, there seems little reason to suspect CBS would not be willing to enter into such an agreement if approached positively, and I would hope that if they are not already doing so, Trek fans in SL are making overtures along such lines already. In fact, I’ll be rather surprised if this isn’t already the case. In 2010/2011 the Universal deal was reached through the able assistance of Anthony Haslage, (Ntanel Swordthain in SL), himself of the International Federation of Trekkers (IFT), and Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA) Second Life Chapter President. So not only is the roadmap there, the chief architect for bringing it to pass is himself well-placed to represent SL Trek fans.

In the meantime, perhaps the biggest question this situation leaves open is what will happen with regards to Star Wars merchandise in SL now that Disney has acquired LucasFilm, and, presumably, the rights to the highly lucrative merchandising arrangements related to that franchise.