How Feasible is Licensing by the Regular Folk?

18 January 2009

The internet, computers, technology, are all commonly cited as part of the problem with protecting intellectual property rights.  It's too easy for anyone to get access to anything and do whatever they'd like with it.  But this increased flow of information and new found ease of connecting with people has also been cited as a bonus to helping IP rights owners receive their dues. 

Things that used to be seen as uncontrollable uses of works, such as photocopying of journal articles, are now seen manageable.   Technology has not only increased access to works, it has increased access to rights-owners.  The barriers to getting a license have supposedly been removed and anyone should be able to follow the proper protocol and use licensed works.  But how realistic is this

I decided, as one of the regular folk, to attempt to license a piece of work for use on Ip's What's Up.  Both of the Ip's What's Up ippers are huge fans of Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks, both the strip and the television series.  This strip seemed perfect for a post I wanted to do called RIAA for President (and Congressman and Supreme Court Justice).  [The post was to be about how long concerns of the RIAA taking over the US government have been around.]  So, I set out to do the right thing and get a license...bo080924

Attempt to License

Why try?

The first question you may ask is, "why bother trying to license; why not just use the work?"  The answer is simple: Fear.  The forces that be (especially in America) have done a good job of scaring people into an underground creativity bunker.  The message: Don't even think about using ANYTHING.

But what about fair use?

Those of you familiar with copyright law might be asking, "why not just use the work in a manner that would fall under the fair use exception carved out in Sec. 107 of the US Copyright Act?"  The simple answer is a sarcastic laugh.  A more detailed answer can be found on page 98 of Free Culture.  Fair use is a defense to use in court - what regular folk has the money to go to court to use this defense?

Getting a license... maybe

I receive (legally, from an authorized website) imageThe Boondocks strip each day by email.  The emails contain a little link that says I can click to license a work.    "Wow!  This is great,"  I thought, "They really do make  it easy for anybody to use their work legally."  I clicked on the link.

That link took me to a general Universal Press Syndicate webpage about licenses for all the comics to which they own the rights.  After sorting through all the information and finding what I thought was the correct place to put in my request for the specific strip I wanted, I was taken to page long form that asked for specific information.  At this point I was thinking, "ok, this is a bit cumbersome, but the instructions aren't bad.  After all, there are a lot of different rights and aspects to those rights."

Then came the pricing. image This was a bit surprising.  Ip's What's Up is a blog on the web, therefore, it's accessible by anyone in the world.  World rights = $100.  That's kind of a lot of money for a student, but I figured if I was going to try to do this the right way, I'd pay.  There was no information on the expected time-frame, and I was in no hurry, so I did not select the rush service.  I submitted the form and waited.

That was 3 months ago.

So is it feasible?

Ease of Use

For the average person sitting at home creating art on their computer, without a background in copyright law, the information for which the form asks can seem a little excessive and could discourage some from proceeding.  This could easily be remedied by including little explanatory boxes on the form where users could click to find out why it matters where they're work is going to be accessed.


While $100 is a small amount compared to most regular licensing agreements, it's still probably a lot of money for your average at-home creator.   Imagine if $100 was the standard fee for using any work on the internet.  A standard remix video could easily run into the thousands of dollars.  While it might be more fair to base the fee on the use, the set amount offers a certain appeal in its ease.  Perhaps though, it's too early to set prices for licenses to regular folk.  The market hasn't yet decided what's appropriate or what's too extreme in either direction.


The complete lack of response from Universal Press Syndicate, in a three month time span, pretty much completely shuts down individual licensing for the average folk.  People sitting at home, creating on their computers, in their spare time, generally aren't going to have the time or resources to follow up on a requested license.  There's also the likely-hood that the new work is relevant to current events and will no longer be relevant (or that the creator will have lost their enthusiasm for the work) by the time the rights-owner gets around to answering requests.

Making it Work

Individual licenses for regular folk to use existing intellectual property in their new creations could work.  The ability for people to easily contact rights-owners has created an opportunity where none existed before.  However, two things need to be taken care of first.  The market needs to figure out the acceptable price range for individual regular folk licenses, and the turn-around time needs to be made very short so that licensing the work you want to use is a realistic option.

Once general content users have the ability to license material for use in their own works in a realistic and economically feasible manner, many of the other problems associated with intellectual property and the internet will decrease.  When works are used legally in derivative works there will be less need for take-down notices, less lawsuits and more sharing of creativity.


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