Tag Archives: copyright

Complete Zenith: A Review

cover to Complete ZenithWARNING: Some minor spoilers in the images, but nothing to get too excited about.

Zenith is a comic strip from “my era” of 2000ad. I first started getting 2000ad from Prog 497 (after already purchasing several Titan reprint albums) and Zenith himself arrived in Prog 520.

In some ways it’s a surprise Zenith was a hit in the comic’s pages. Grant Morrison is one of the few British creators in the 80s who didn’t cut his teeth in 2000ad – his break was in DC Thompson’s Starblazer – and it is fair to say he never really “got” the 2000ad house style as was all too apparent in his work on Judge Dredd and the infamous “summer offensive”. What’s more, 2000ad doesn’t do superheroes. Zenith represented 2000ad’s first non-parodic toe dip into those deep waters.

In many respects, Zenith feels more like a Warrior strip than a 2000ad one and has a lot in common with Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Captain Britain in that it is a very British treatment of a quintessentially American genre. I wouldn’t over emphasise the similarities however, and feed into Alan Moore’s lazy narrative that Morrison is a plagiarist. Indeed, many of the ideas that Morrison plays with in Zenith are ones which he has revisited in his own work many times since, particularly in Final Crisis, Animal Man and his Vertigo trilogy of The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

Despite Morrison moving rapidly onto bigger things, the story arc of Zenith is complete. The full colour Phase IV came out a few years after Phase III, and Morrison even returned for a one-off in 2000. It has however been increasingly hard to get hold of. Titan Books only reprinted the first three phases and ceased their 2000ad line in the early 90s. There was talk of reprinting it in the early noughties, but it quickly emerged that there were legal disputes preventing this from happening.

What are these legal disputes? Essentially, pretty much everything which 2000ad has ever published has been on the basis of work-for-hire: the company owns the rights in perpetuity (there are actually exceptions to this, but for the most part this is where the comic published work which had been initially commissioned by another publisher, notably Toxic!). However, Grant Morrison maintains that he never signed away his rights to Zenith and it would appear that 2000ad cannot prove him wrong in this respect. They could offer him a new contract or just accept he has the rights, but that would open up a legal minefield which could force 2000ad to revisit its ownership of pretty much everything it published in the 80s. As such it would appear they are at an impasse, the big loser being artist Steve Yeowell for whom this probably represents his most critically acclaimed and commercial work.

2000ad Books’ decision to print the entire run in a single volume earlier this year came out of nowhere. It has been limited to a (quickly sold out) print run of 1,000 and it is entirely possible this is the only time it will ever be reprinted. By all accounts, Morrison was not consulted on this and Rebellion have essentially stonewalled him. The theory goes that this is an experiment to see how he reacts. Either he’ll throw his lawyers at them or he’ll let it pass, in which case their case that he waived his rights and they are free to reprint will be that much stronger. It is far too soon to tell who will eventually win this, but in the meantime those of us willing to fork out £100 get a copy of something they have been dreaming of having in their hands for years.

What can I say about the book? I haven’t read the strip for many years and haven’t had a chance to pore through this edition yet, but I can say that it is very, very lovely indeed.

My shelves have been filling up with 2000ad’s “telephone directory” reprints for quite some time now (yes, I know that telephone directories these days are thinner than a weekly Prog; you get my meaning). I adore them, but they’re a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the reproduction and restoration, especially in the earlier days, is a bit iffy – especially when they are working from degraded copies of the comic rather than from negatives. And some of their choices can be a little odd, such as their decision to not include The Dead Man and America from their Complete Judge Dredd volumes (WHY????? Sigh, it still makes me furious). So I’ll be honest when I say that despite being willing to fork out for this volume I was a little trepidatious.

some of the reprint covers which appear in the Complete ZenithBut it has exceeded my expectations in several respects. This may seem obvious, but when they say “complete”, they mean it. It doesn’t just have all the strips, but it includes all the covers. Not just the 2000ad covers but the covers of the Titan reprints (which themselves were Ryan Hughes design classics) and the Quality and Egmont-Fleetway US reprints. I didn’t even know that Simon Bisley drew covers for the latter, although I have to admit that I’m not entirely blown away by them. It even includes a text story that Mark Millar wrote for an old annual, which if I recall correctly was only tangentially related to Zenith and (like many Mark Millar superhero and 2000ad stories) best forgotten about.

And then there’s the colour. Reprinting 2000ad strips from the late 80s and early 90s can be a bit of a challenge because the comic went from mainly monochrome to full colour in 1990. To keep costs down, book publishers tend to get creative when confronted with things like this by printing half the book in black and white and half in colour, but this can often look awful. On top of this, Phase I of Zenith was during a brief period when 2000ad adopted an odd habit of printing the last page of some of its strips on the back page of the comic itself – often in full colour. Most of the time, the solution to that is to print the page in black and white – and most of the time that means a page which looked gorgeous in the original comic looking muddy and illegible. This has particularly plagued the Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog reprints.

Colour transitions in the Complete ZenithNot so with Zenith. That £100 asking price means that, to their credit, they have spared no expense. So on the two chapters in Phase I where this applies you get a wonderful burst of colour. There is a slight issue which I’ve noticed whereby one of the annual stories, an Interlude, appears to have been printed slightly out of sequence so that it appears between Phases III and IV (when, if I recall correctly, it should be between II and III), but this is not disastrous as the story is out of sequence in any case.

Overall, I’m very happy with this and am content with paying the money. I very much expect an unlimited edition to appear in the next few years, but I don’t think those reprints will be either as comprehensive or include the nice touches that this one does.

And what of the ethics of reprinting this despite the legal uncertainty? Well, as readers of this blog will know, I’m fairly radical when it comes to my views on intellectual property. I think there is a good case for making all publications public domain 20 years after their initial publication – and I suspect that such an approach would have concentrated minds in both the Morrison and 2000ad camps. The existence of 2000ad slightly challenges my opposition to corporations being able to jealously guard their intellectual property because it has to be said that if their archives were worth less to them, it is entirely possible it would have ceased to be a viable publication some time ago (that said, I’m not wedded to 20 years and a somewhat longer period than that would probably fix that). I also have a lot of sympathy for Steve Yeowell and can’t believe that Morrison didn’t know he was working on a work for hire basis at the time. So yeah, I think they are right to test the waters here.

The Lib Dem campaign for internet freedom steps up a gear

If you haven’t already joined the Lib Dems Save the Net Facebook campaign, I recommend you do so.

Meanwhile, an emergency motion has been submitted to Spring conference. Bridget Fox has the details.

I’ve submitted the following questions to the Federal Policy Committee for the morning of conference:

1. What role has the FPC played in formulating the Liberal Democrat response to the Digital Economy Bill?

2. The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party often finds itself having to respond to legislation that the party has little or outdated policy on. What does the FPC do to ensure that the eventual response from the Parliamentary Party is a) the result of as open and democratic a process as possible; and b) adequately consults the views of all stakeholders with an interest in the legislation?

And finally, I’ve written an article on Comment is Free about the Clement-Jones/Razzall amendment:

No doubt Clement-Jones and Razzall felt that making bad less awful was the only responsible thing to do. In fact, forcing us to choose between judges and lawyers having to interpret a bad law and ministers making it up as they go along is no choice at all. After five years of one of the most depressing parliaments in living history, the last thing the Lib Dems can afford to do is to present themselves as the nicer, slightly less unacceptable face of the establishment. Leave that to David Cameron.

Will Lembit have me arrested?

I’ve just updated Prawn Free Lembit with Mr Opik’s latest column from the Daily Sport and it has put me in a bit of a quandary.

You see, by posting that column, I’m breaching copyright. I’m a pretty good boy when it comes to copyright violation generally – unusually for my generation even where music is concerned – but I set up Prawn Free Lembit because I thought these columns ought to see the light of day outside of the confines of a porn-infested and frankly medieval website that doesn’t even have RSS feeds. He’s an elected politician and I think we all have a right to know what he has to say without having degrading images of women shoved in our faces, don’t you think? I don’t editorialise and let Lembit speaks for himself. If it leads to people asking awkward questions about why a man in his forties who owns a pair of trousers would spend a significant part of his working week perving about which “Sport Stunna” he’d like to “elevate” to “high office” (f’narr!), then that’s on him.

However noble my intentions may have been however, it is clear that Lembit has a very black and white view of the matter. Breach of copyright is “theft”, pure and simple. He has lent his support to Peter Mandelson’s plan to cut off people who are caught filesharing illegally and presumably the rozzers will be knocking on my door any minute.

The arguments about why Mandelson’s plans are utterly bogus have been well rehearsed. While I wouldn’t go quite as far as those who favour legalising peer-to-peer filesharing in all circumstances, the government’s disconnection plans would punish the innocent, be impractical in practice and fundamentally miss the point.

The music industry is in the mess that it is in for a very simple reason. It has filched the public and recording artists for decades. This was possible to get away with 20 years ago because technology and IP laws made it easy for them. As a result they could live it large, ply their musicians and useful dupes with drugs and alcohol and indulge their megastars. When the internet came along, instead of waking up to its potential threat to them and adapting, they pretended it didn’t exist for decades. The result was utter contempt by the general public which fuelled the rise of peer-to-peer once the technology came up to speed.

The death of the music industry – which is a real possibility – will not mean the death of music. Music existed before copyright laws and it will exist long after them as well. People won’t suddenly stop making music. What it will probably mean is the death of the superstar. Your online music store will resemble a public library more than HMV. Instead of having a middle man around who decides what music is worth listening to and what category it should be wedged into, we’ll be able to choose from a much wider source. Technology will (has) made garage bands sound as professional as the big labels and marketing costs have levelled out. The Simon Cowells of this world are utterly fucked, which is why his himself has already jumped ship and moved onto TV – and even then the X-Factor band wagon won’t keep rolling forever.

Will it be possible to make money as a musician in the future? It all depends on what your aspirations are. Any halfway successful musician will be able to make several multiples of what I’ll earn in my lifetime, but there’ll be a lot fewer multi-millionaires. You probably won’t ever get that private jet I’m afraid. The simple fact are only so many punters out there and talent is nothing like as hard to come by as Smash Hits and NME led us to believe. They lied.

But is rendering musician to the status of mere vocation such a terrible thing? Money has destroyed so many talents over the years that it is hard to shed a tear for the decline of the superstar. Is it really so wonderful that popular music has become so strongly associated with excess, mental illness, vanity, self-abasement and violence? More musicians earning less money is a scenario in which 99% of us win. It is no coincidence that Wilkinson and Pickett considered a move towards less restrictive IP laws as a crucial step towards engendering a more equal culture in The Spirit Level.

The reason I suspect Lembit does not see it that way is that it is not music he is really defending but the industry which he has courted and been courted by (and indeed courted within) for the past decade.

Oh, and as I have thus far forgotten to post the latest edition of The Show, courtesy of EyeSeeSound.tv, allow me to do so here. It’s the future!

F**k you very very much, Lily Haw-Haw

Good grief. Who put Lily Allen up to this? It has become a cliche to bemoan politicians for not “getting it” but where does one start?

The whole POINT about file-sharing is that it enables artists to by-pass record companies. This massive debt that Allen complains about is part of an old, outmoded business plan. To complain about it is to give the game away about what it is that the music industry is really seeking to defend here.

And mix tapes are crap quality? Oh really? So before the internet we didn’t have vinyl, tape and CDs and had to depend solely on (presumably long wave) radio? Anyone would think “Home Taping Is Killing Music” never happened.

But the worse thing about this article is all the cheap knocking copy aimed at Simon Cowell and designed to position Allen as some kind of edgy artist with street cred. Back in 2006 when she first emerged, all that fake housing estate stuff really grated. I actually bought her last album because I thought she’d finally stopped being such a fake. I wish I’d downloaded it illegally now.

If you want to listen to good, unsigned and independent musical acts that don’t have rich mummies and daddies on hand to get them started, I thoroughly recommend you check out EyeSeeSound (the new name for The 411 Show):

Scrabulous and IP Wars

When I twittered Rory Cellan-Jones to ask why he didn’t mention Wordscraper in his blog post about Scrabulous, he replied “cos i couldn’t be bothered!” Years from now, when British journalism has finally breathed its last, this phrase will be engraved on its tombstone.

The thing is, the Wordscraper thing is about the most interesting thing about this whole sorry saga. Cellan-Jones misses the point. Badly. While Scrabulous did indeed cross the line by using the same look as Scrabble and using a name that was far too close to a trademarked property, the fact is you can’t copyright an idea and they have been free to set up an almost identical game.

Intellectual property law is at its murkiest when it comes to games. History is littered with people who sold their ideas to companies before their games made it big, least of all Scrabble-inventor Alfred Butts. How do you make money out of a boardgame when people can replay it countless times? Ironically, the answer that Mattell and Hasbro have come up with is to produce a whole range of merchandise. You can buy the official Scrabble dictionary of course, and a special turntable for your board. You can get the deluxe edition and if you want a really big game why not try Super Scrabble (unbalanced in my view)? In a hurry? Try Scramble. On the move? Try Travel Scrabble. They’ve even produced a pink edition to raise money for breast cancer research. Scrabulous hardly dented that market – if anything it helped it.

The point is, they’ve already realised that the real money to be made is not in the game itself but in creating a range of branded tat for the fans to buy. With that in mind, getting Scrabulous banned looks like a pretty bad business move. It probably won’t cost them much, but it has created a lot of ill will and has been built around getting people to sign up to their own, flash heavy and vastly inferior Facebook app. Meanwhile, the Agarwalla brothers appear to have got away with it. The big guys may have won, but it is a pretty empty victory.

Ultimately, this isn’t how big businesses are going to survive in the global internet marketplace. The Agarwalla’s may have overstepped the mark, but it isn’t hard to stay on the right side of the law. Frankly, if Mattel and Hasbro had any sense, they’d encourage developers to compete to produce the best internet version of the game, offering a license that would allow people to publish the game with their blessing, so long as it included a prominent link back to the official website (admittedly, contractually they may be prevented from doing this even if they wanted do but given how long it took their developers to produce a Facebook app and the poor job they made of it, it looks like we can safely add this to their list of cock ups). Think of the free advertising! Ironically, at a different end of the empire, Hasbro has been experimenting with something very similar. Their Wizards of the Coast publishing arm, which produces Dungeons and Dragons, positively encourages other publishers to use their system (albeit with restrictions, something which has admittedly caused some bad feeling). The result was to take a failing brand and catapult it right back to the top of the industry.

Not only are intellectual property laws becoming increasingly hard to enforce, in many ways they are becoming a serious hindrance to making money, which is what they exist to do in the first place. Properties such as boardgames that were devised in the middle of the 20th century (and superheroes for that matter) are a particularly interesting cultural battleground because to those of us who have grown up with them, they feel like public property. Ultimately, this becomes a question about who owns popular culture. The corporates won’t be allowed to win that battle, whether they want to or not.

Evening Standard piece on JK Rowling

This was published in the Evening Standard on Thursday, slightly edited:

The Harry Potter series is one of the most derivative works of fiction ever devised, from its boarding school setting (The Four Marys, Billy Bunter), magical theme (too many to mention) and even its plot (drawing from the same well as Star Wars and even The Matrix). He isn’t even the first fictional English boy wizard with spectacles and a pet owl, as fans of Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic will testify.

None of this is to deride J.K. Rowling’s genius for taking hoary cliché and making something new out of it, but perhaps one would have thought it would have given her a more enlightened view regarding intellectual property law. The Harry Potter Lexicon is clearly a blatant cash in but one which will only promote her original books. If she wants to produce her own, more authoritative encyclopedia, no one is stopping her.

In any case, existing copyright laws mean that while the strikingly original and iconic Alice in Wonderland books became public property 50 years after Lewis Carroll’s death aged 65, Harry Potter will be owned by Rowling’s estate for 70 years after her death. The state of modern medicine and her millions mean that she is likely to survive well into her 90s. I don’t begrudge her money, but I do have an issue with her great grandchildren continuing to rake it in during the 2120s.

James Graham

IP Wars: Episode Two

Thanks to all concerned for all the positive comments I’ve had regarding my post last week on intellectual property. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the response despite the article’s glaring flaws.

One of the things I meant to write about, which Jock reminds us of (via Mises Blog) was the whole Radiohead/In Rainbows phenomenon. Amazon currently rates this album, released this week, at 2 in its music sales chart, and 1 in rock and indie. Not bad for something being given away for free a few weeks ago (speaking personally, I really didn’t think much of the album being a pre-Kid A kind of guy, but each to their own).

It does make me wonder however if the future of physical music purchasing lies in the 70s. Back in the days of vinyl, bands would often turn their LPs into wonderful must-haves, with large, glorious artwork, books and sleevenotes. The scrappy booklet that can be found inside most CDs doesn’t compare. Already all major releases (including Radiohead’s) have a limited edition; at what point will these become standard issue?

Doctor Vee also highlights another omission: the argument in 2007 about whether or not to extend the copyright of recordings, lead by the rather deep pocketed Paul McCartney and Cliff Richard. He points to a paper by Rufus Pollock arguing that the optimal length of copyright from an economic viewpoint should be around 15 years. I haven’t read the full paper yet but it looks interesting.

Anyway, it made a nice change from the endless strings of memes and goodwill messages that dominate the blogosphere at this time of year.

Intellectual Property – the big 21st century faultline?

Eqypt are set to pass a law forcing royalties to be paid to, erm, Egypt, every time anyone makes a copy of a pyramid or an ancient Egyptian relic. This presumably means I’ll owe them money every time I press the arrow (^) key. But of course, this isn’t the first time a government has passed a special law to protect a specific piece of intellectual property: after all in the UK we have given Peter Pan protected status specifically with a view to bankrolling the Great Ormond Street Hospital, and who could object to giving money to sick children?

This is a rather extreme example of the what is increasingly emerging as a major faultline in civilisation which seems set to dominate much of the 21st century. On the one hand we have global multi-media empires which look set to exploit – and extend – IP as much as possible. What some economists call “superstar economics” means that a piece of IP – pretty much any piece it seems can be exploited for millions, even billions of euros at a global level. On the other hand, there is the open source movement, the idea that the future lies in collaboration and sharing. Largely voluntary movements such as Creative Commons may seem benign enough, but Bill Gates has already denounced open source as a new form of communism, and beyond the obvious face offs such as Napster, we have yet to see how more sophisticated ideas about opening up other mediums and industries might challenge the status quo. One thing to look out for in my opinion is how the movement for opening up access to public data develops. Already there are rumblings objecting to the idea that people should have free access to something that the government has been flogging to private companies for years. Crown copyright has effectively lined the pockets of companies such as Dod’s for years; what will lobbyists do if large amounts of what companies such as this do suddenly becomes available to every Tom, Dick and Harriet? Somehow I doubt Dod’s is going to take this lying down.

One thing is sure, the traditional industries are feeling insecure and starting to behave in a manner not unlike a cornered animal. The ridiculous behaviour of the Performing Rights Society, described on this blog last month, is far from unique. Buy or rent a DVD, or go to the cinema, and it is now par for the course to essentially accused of theft by the very company you have just increased the coffers of in the form of their insulting and bossy FACT warnings (to be fair, their recent cinema adverts are somewhat gentler and might even be accused of having a sense of humour, if you don’t mind being talked down to by a cartoon rodent).

Over the past few days there have been a number of articles in the press about the music industry (and now MPs) taking a stance against websites such as eBay selling on tickets. We are now to understand eBay and the like as being virtual “pimps” – an analogy which is fine so long as you accept that the same basic description applies to estate agents (indeed any kind of agent) and indeed anyone working as a middle man in any industry (including, erm, record companies).

Harvey Goldsmith is proposing legislation to make it illegal to resell tickets to music gigs along similar lines to the existing legislation that applies to football matches. Yet this legislation is there for a very specific reason: it is designed to prevent football hooligans from buying their way onto their rivals’ terraces. Whether you approve or disapprove of this legislation, its intent is to stop people from being maimed and even killed; Goldsmith is calling for nothing more than the protection against their own gullibility.

Much of what seems to be developing appears to be perfectly legitimate. For example, what’s wrong with creating a futures market for ticket sales? It sounds like a perfectly good service for sports and music fans.

The solution to all this seems to be obvious to me: rather than trying to shut down the auctioneers, who are only providing services at the price people are willing to pay, why not sell all tickets in this way in the first place? The music industry appears to take great delight at how quickly they sell out of mega-gigs, yet all that ensures is that the tickets go to the most enthusiastic, the luckiest and the most organised. The average punter loses out at every turn. Surely auctioning tickets would not only ensure that the company (and artist) gets the right price, but would limit the potential resell value. We don’t need new laws, we just need new business models.

(The music industry in particular doesn’t seem to get market economics. If it isn’t complaining that the value of tickets to gigs is to high, it is complaining that the value of CDs is too low. The CEOs of Sony, EMI et al wouldn’t look out of place in the management board of a tractor factory in Stalin’s Russia)

But it doesn’t end there. Both global patent and copyright laws have been extended in recent decades. The original idea behind such laws appears to have been forgotten and pure greed has taken its place. Globalisation means that the earnings potential from a new idea has massively increased; yet at the same time we’ve artificially increased it further still, and long lives will extend this still further. To take one example, J.K. Rowling, a rich woman who can afford the very best in healthcare, is likely to have a very long life. Let’s assume she lives to 100, in 2065. The copyright on her books will stay with her estate until 2135. That means that her great-great-great grandchildren will still be profiting from their ancestor’s books. Is there really any justification for that? I’m all for an artist’s work being protected, but when a work becomes a global brand, doesn’t there come a point when the money made from it is no longer reflective of that work’s value and more based on the value of the marketing behind it? Doesn’t there come a point where these laws no longer protect creativity but stifle it?

Compare Batman to Robin Hood. Anyone can make a Robin Hood movie; the character is in public domain. To make a Batman film (or comic for that matter), you need the permission of Time-Warner. Who does this serve? Isn’t Batman now an iconic enough figure in popular imagination in such a way that is bigger than any corporation?

It is, I readily acknowledge, a moot point. But I’m less concerned about the here and now than I am about the prospect of a century of corporations owning vast catalogues of intellectual properties archived from the 20th century and trying to find ever more creative ways of exploiting them. As a civilisation, we’ve never had to face such a privatisation of ideas before. Technology will make it easier for corporations such as Disney to take legal action against anyone using their IP without permission – on the web and, without wanting to get too sci-fi here, ultimately in your mind? – yet what moral rights do they have over such cartoon characters that have become part of our folk memory?

It strikes me that all this could take a turn for the much worse and inevitably there will be a backlash. And ultimately this is deadly serious because it goes far beyond books, music and cartoon characters; much of the value of our stocks and shares are rooted in intellectual property; challenging the laws allowing Marvel to keep hold of Spider-Man could have enormous consequences for instance. And that means huge vested interests are at stake here.

As with land, I can’t help but feel that the debates on intellectual property that were raging at the turn of the last century will increasingly be revisited in the not so distant future. At stake is nothing less than who owns our very culture.

More PRS balls

As a follow up to my blog post a couple of weeks ago, ‘Ron‘ from Linksway Hotel has written the following:

I have just been contacted by this society and been advised that I need to pay some £1800 per annum for hotel guests to view and listen to music in their rooms.

We pay for a Television Licence for the hotel.

The law states that once you have reserved a room in a hotel, it becomes your private residence,so any viewing of tv or listening to radio is deemed to be private.

It seems to me that someone at the PRS has gone a bit bonkers. I also received an email from an MP a couple of weeks ago saying that they had received a considerable amount of casework about this issue and was pursuing it further. Watch this space.