What is digital ownership?
This question came up in discussion today, and with good reason. Every so often, some new, seemingly-devastating measure is proposed to crack down on piracy, impose certain types of censorship, or control the internet in one of various ways, and each time it’s usually shot down or forgotten about. Copyright laws and the question of ‘what does ownership of media actually mean?’ seem to get asked a lot in America, so I suppose the related question is, why does it matter? Why do we all get so hung up on these definitions of what is okay to put on the internet?
I believe the answer is community.
Every day I see fanart, writing, or videos involving copyrighted material. The realm of ‘fandom’ is a concept that has been evolving for decades, and with the internet available to us we can connect to this community in ways that just don’t work without some sort of online network. My personal experience is that consuming media on its own can be rewarding, but then to go and talk about said media, to engage with other people and actively create something related to the stories you care about, is when it starts to really matter. By becoming actively involved with these games and shows and books, whether by drawing the characters, editing videos with clips from filmed media, or even writing fanfiction (yes, I know, stay with me here even if you just rolled your eyes), people can use fictional worlds to drive their own creativity and sense of engagement in a community that actively supports and encourages them. It leads to deeper analysis of media from people who honestly care about it.
So why are these threats of copyright so damaging? Well, technically, some of the most integral aspects of fandom are against certain copyright laws. This issue comes up most often with the idea of fanvideos, since the creators of the fanwork are using actual footage of televised media or even screen recordings of video games, as well as copyrighted music. The rules seem to have become a bit more ‘fuzzy’ lately, but for a while many videos were getting taken down by YouTube depending on the individual copyright laws applying to the original media. Communities of YouTube animators, also, have to be careful about the music they use. Fanfiction is generally accepted by the wider community despite its use of often copyrighted characters, but even fanart runs onto shaky ground, especially if the artist is taking commissions or selling prints of their art.
In an effort to limit piracy, a lot of the recent legislative proposals have been aimed more at the ‘get rid of everything using copyrighted material’ end of the discussion, and i think that’s damaging. The way media has been developing, getting rid of these fandom spaces is detrimental to not only the fans themselves, but also the original creators. The most successful franchises tend to be ones with an engaged community, and I know many people who have seen fanworks that then inspired them to go watch the show, or play the game, or whatever form the original media embodied.
Streaming/downloading actual copyrighted media is one thing, and yeah, that definitely needs to be regulated. But the freedom to explore that media and create content with a community of like-minded people is healthy and important. So that’s why we ask, ‘what is digital ownership?’ Because we need to make sure they don’t change the rules on us, and make sure our communities are allowed to survive.