For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in a mopey funk thinking about intellectual property vs creator-owned original work, and how the landscape of creative work has changed so dramatically, and what it says about my own career.
My first job in video games was for a sequel to a game that I loved, and after working on several more sequels and licensed titles over the years, I finally got to work with some of my all-time favorite characters. I even got to make my own small contribution with an original character.1Well, as original as a pastiche of at least five different other characters can be. Recently I saw that character being used as company branding for a license-holder who’s making re-releases for the games, which just feels like giving me a huge middle finger.
I guess the lesson learned, after 25 years, is: never confuse a “feeling of ownership” over something you’ve made with actual ownership. Turns out that the conversion rate between USD and a sense of pride in a creative work is, at the time of this writing, 0.00.
Way back in the dark mists of the mid-1990s, when I was working in that first job in game development, there was a pervasive false dichotomy between “licensed titles” (the term “intellectual property” hadn’t really hit mainstream yet) and original work. In short, you were either working on something original, or you were selling out.2The first company I worked at had a couple of gigantic all-encompassing licenses, so that probably had a lot to do with it, but I know that it wasn’t limited to just LucasArts, since you can still see it all the time in regards to Imagineering projects, and the rise of “not cinema” super-hero movies.
It was silly even back then, but seems particularly absurd now. Some of the most brilliant, genre-redefining games were licensed games; and I’ve had a much greater sense of ownership over my work on a couple of licensed games than for the “original” ones. But still, it was pervasive enough that I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more inherently valuable about original work.
I suspect I was always too idealistic to admit that this was just trying to put a “celebrate the unique magic of creativity” spin on what was in reality a much more financial concern. Obviously, talented people can make something great out of a license just as well as they can out of an original concept. The biggest differences are who gets control over it, and who gets to profit from the labor involved. In retrospect, I probably should’ve noticed that the people who were shouting the loudest about the integrity of original content were the exact same people who stood to benefit the most from it.
I’ve always appreciated that I had a very rare opportunity in that my first job in games was not only for my favorite game developer, but on what was one of my favorite properties. If you think of it as “professional fan fiction,” which is basically how I thought of it, then it’s easy to focus only on living up to your expectations as a fan. It’s easier to forget about all the practical concerns like budgeting and recognition and marketing, and forgetting how much the license is giving you a head start. You’re riding on top of a built-in audience, as well as probably a larger budget and a bigger team. Not to mention all the more subtle advantages, like you’re probably not having to pitch the basics of the concept to people.
A big part of my mopey funk is just realizing how much work is involved when you don’t have that head start. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of creative people sharing their work online — paintings and drawings, CG models, animation, short films, music, independent games — and I’ve been marveling at how anyone has the time and energy to be making so much stuff these days. Most recently I’ve been getting back into the YouTube channel of David Sandberg, a Swedish filmmaker who’s built a Hollywood career off of his short films, and is somehow still making short films and tutorials. On Instagram, I’ve been following artist Sean Kiernan, who’ll casually post concept images for an animated series or video game that has yet to be made.
It’s equal parts inspiring and paralyzing. How do you even get started?
The encouraging thing is that there are not only more sophisticated tools available than ever before, for cheaper than ever before, with a network of people eager to share what they’ve learned. There are even more platforms eager to help you monetize it, if that’s your end goal.
Today, there’s been a firehose of announcements from Disney, for the purposes of reminding COVID-wary investors that even if the theme parks, movie theaters, and cruise lines are closed, the company still has seemingly billions of beloved properties and characters available to work with. There are some Star Wars series that sound amazing, and also Rogue One spin-off Andor; various MCU series in the works; some new series based on Disney Animation properties like Big Hero Six and Zootopia; and even a feature-length Toy Story spin-off about Buzz Lightyear.
In addition to announcements for existing properties, they also announced Encanto, a movie set in Colombia with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which seems to be pitched to emphasis similarities to Moana; and Iwaju, which looks like an original afrofuturism fantasy story, no doubt made Disney-viable by the success of Black Panther.
It’d be easy to be cynical and say that this is just Disney pumping out a glut of licensed properties to milk every last penny from their licenses. You can tell it’d be easy to say that, since I’ve already seen so many people saying it on Twitter. What’s interesting to me, though, is that very little of this fits into that whole mid-1990s dichotomy of IP vs original content. Original concepts become less risky when combined with known talent or known properties, and vice versa. And licenses are just as likely to be used as vehicles for more established talent (like Jon Favreau, Taika Waititi, and Dave Filoni with Star Wars) as not-as-well-known talent (like the team behind the Ms Marvel series).
There are still tons of creators and tons of ideas out there; the biggest difference between now and the “good old days” is that more of those ideas are getting made by more of those creators. Of course not all of it will be great, but it doesn’t need to be.
And I think it dispels that old dichotomy once and for all. It’s called “intellectual property” for a reason; that’s the only thing that companies like Disney and Lucasfilm truly “own.” They don’t own the talent or creativity of the people making stuff, even though in the past, the gatekeepers of the IP were almost always the same as the gatekeepers of the resources to make everything possible. Being an independent creator was a much, much, much bigger liability back then than it is now.
A huge company is making it possible for tons of new ideas to become reality. A bunch of people who made their names off small indie projects will get much greater exposure from being attached to a big-name project; and a bunch of people working on big-name projects will now potentially have the resources to make their own stuff independently.
As it turns out, the only finite resource is time. I hope I’ve got time to make new stuff with all this TV I’m going to have to watch.
- 1Well, as original as a pastiche of at least five different other characters can be.
- 2The first company I worked at had a couple of gigantic all-encompassing licenses, so that probably had a lot to do with it, but I know that it wasn’t limited to just LucasArts, since you can still see it all the time in regards to Imagineering projects, and the rise of “not cinema” super-hero movies.