Intellectual Property and the New Dominion

I don’t consider myself or my friends Disney fans, but they have come to control some of the hottest properties in Geek Culture in the last couple of years. And yet, I watch more of their movies now than when I was a kid. Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel all fall under Disney now. They are churning out movies at an extraordinary rate, and while the quality is high, so far, I often wonder if they intend to run these beloved pieces of fiction into the ground or if they will nurture them carefully. It is an academic question I suppose. After all, Star Wars lived on past the second trilogy.

Not sure if I approve, but I can’t deny it makes $

For those who don’t work in a creative industry, intellectual property (IP for short) in fiction can be a difficult concept to grasp. IP in a general sense refers to an idea which is seen as the exclusive creation of a person or company. In Fiction it usually refers to the world along with all the trademarked bits and pieces of it.  The actually legalities behind IP are even more complex, with all kinds of strange arrangements which only businessmen and certain kinds of lawyers really care about. The long and the short of this is that whole worlds can be made, rented, and sold. While this matters very little to a proudly independent author engaged in his own world building, beyond avoiding getting sued for using Orks instead of Orcs or Lightsabers and Space Marines at all, it might have a drastic effect on fiction in general very soon. Bear with me here.

Book Publishing Companies are currently going through a bit of a crisis in the face of e-book publishing. It is very, very easy to publish an eBook. Digital formats make sharing quick and easy. The big publishing companies can no longer act as the gate-keepers to the industry and have less and less ability to demand that new authors jump though hoops or deny them access altogether. With an increase in freelance editors and agents willing to take on successful self-published authors publishers have less to offer on the service side as well. This does not really help the authors, who must still struggle to get noticed, but it does give a fair bit of power to the consumer who no longer has to be satisfied with what the big six have to show. It reminds me  the fragmentation of the television audience: in a five hundred channel universe the guy with the remote has a lot more say over what gets watched and made than when their were only three networks. Book Publishing Companies will either need to find a new model to maintain profits or, more likely, will start to mine their back catalogs to compete in more and more niche environments.

New Models is where IPs come in. While I don’t see the big book publishers are being fast enough on their feet to get into IPs, I do see IP driven creative companies like Disney (Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel), Games Workshop (Warhamer 40k aka SPACE MARINES), Warner Brothers (DC), Hasbro (Transformers, GI Joe, Various Dungeons and Dragons Worlds) showing and increasing interest in publishing books. Many of the smaller players with well developed worlds have also thrown in on the game as well. With the low risk of publishing a digital book, it is just too tempting for them not to expand into this area. Let me break it down from the perspective of the Company, the Author, and the Consumer to demonstrate why I think this model is on the rise.

The IP Company: IP companies try to squeeze as much as possible from the worlds they buy up, in general books are one of many avenues for them to exploit. With digital on the rise, it a very low overhead avenue. They already have the world and a book is a great way to promote most brands. The main difficulty is locking an author down and limiting them to the IP, but this is what IP companies do for the most part.

  • Low Risk, High Potential Reward: Chances are if you read Fantasy you’ve heard of R.A. Salvatore or Drizzt Do’Urden, his most famous creation.  With over seventeen million books sold, Mr Salvatore has done very well for himself and his publishers. Interestingly his books are based on the Forgotten Realms IP that originated with TSR and is now owned (ultimately) by Hasbro. With the new low costs of putting out a digital book, smart IP companies are going to be looking for more R.A. Salvatores.
  • Authors are Cheap and Eager!: If you find a new author who loves your IP they will often work for a relatively small fee. Some of these companies employ creative writers for other purposes already.
  • Maximum Exploitation: People who love a particular IP are more likely to buy books and other merchandise affiliated with that IP. Having moved aggressively into competitive markets like computer games, board-games, apparel, movies, and so on books are just another area to market in.
  • IP definition: Books are very good for adding another layer of detail to an existing IP. Fiction authors are superb world-builders and can provide all kinds of lovely development to an existing IP which the company then gets to to keep using for the most part.
  • Peacocking: Having a best-selling book is a nice feather in the cap for some IPs. Also, having celebrity directors with the new marvel and star trek movies has certainly excited audiences… I wonder what would happen if an IP companies could attract already established authors to its IPs…

The Author: So we can see why the IP companies would want to get into it publishing, but why would an author get involved with an IP company.

  • The Usual Reason ($): Writing a book is still time consuming. Hooking up with a publisher of any sort can get you some money up front and access to editors and marketing. In my opinion IP companies are much smarter about how they target niche audiences. Unlike Publishing Companies that target one product (books) to a varied audience, IP companies tend to target a range of products to a fairly specific audience for each of their IPs.
  • The Built-in Audience of a Big IP: This is the big draw. A good IP has an audience that is already eager for your book. The eagerness for books varies by IP, certainly. But a popular IP has an established audience that will help with initial sales.
  • Peacocking: Having your name on a good book set in your favourite IP… to some authors that would be priceless. I know people who kill for this in games/comics and I expect it to draw some superstar authors to string IPs in the future. Leaving your mark on a popular IP might be worth it.
  • A Ready Made World: There is some appeal to having a ready made IP to draw on. Some of these worlds have an incredible amount of lore and detail for an author to draw upon which can make an author’s job much easier. Some people might like the break from building their own worlds from scratch.

The Consumer: Consumers hold more power in this equation. With a wider choice in books in the digital age, what brings them to the table?

  • They Love the IP: Pure and simple, in the age of Geek Chic some fans will buy every product they can about their favorite IP. I’ve seen people by 300$ Tardis models to sit on their shelves just because they love Dr Who, a matching book for 10$ is a real steal — especially since you can get some joy out of reading the book y’know.
  • Familiarity: When you buy a Warhammer 40k book you know you are getting Grimdark with a side of big guns. When you buy a Hordes book you get badass monsters and warlocks. Star Trek gives you the exotic planets, lightsabers, space battles, and the force. Popular IPs are the comfort food of the creative industry.

The Flip Side: Of course there’s always that one guy. It is worth noting that exceptionally skilled and lucky authors can make a bundle off creating a big IP. Just look at J.K Rowling, Suzeanne Collins, GRR Martin, and Stephanie Meyer. Big IP companies can purchase the rights to these IPs and have a ready made fan base from the ground up. There will always be authors who want to create their own worlds. Many of them are easy marks for smart IP companies who can see the franchise potential in a new world that has not made a ton of money yet.  That’s a different post, however.

The IP publishing model strikes me as a great replacement for the old publishing model. New writers are attracted to ready made audiences of a big IP. The companies are attracted to the low costs of digital and the chance to get their IP into new markets or just squeeze the fans for more money. Fans get more of the IP of that they love. Veteran writers get the chance to work on a beloved IP for bragging rights or maybe even create their own and sell the movie rights. Its the circle of life… or something like that.

At least until the IP gets overexposed through an endless barrage of new products or altered to the point where fans get tired of it. I’m looking at you Disney. Ease up, ok?


One comment on “Intellectual Property and the New Dominion

  1. judaidan says:

    I rather enjoyed the fact that the heirs of Victor Hugo took on Disney”s portrayal of _The Hunchback of Notre Dame_ in the animated mid 1990’s movie.The family’s complaint was that the movie was rather tasteless and hardly resembled the classic novel – an item that concerned his relatives because they worried that the high budget Disney movie would become the “definitive” version to a new generation. Of course, the family had no copyright claim over their relative’s intellectual property- nor could they profit from it either, but the lawsuit allowed their passionate criticism to heard and to surely represent what would have been the author’s own derision over this safe and sanitized version of his classic novel. Recently, the author of _World War Z_, Max Brooks, expressed a similar frustration over the fact that the film adaptation of his novel only resembles his novel in title and in no other way. I suppose that’s the risk an author takes when optioning his or her intellectual property, but it is extremely frustrating when a studio merely exploits a work because it’s a bestseller and not due to the “virtue” of the work itself (or whatever has distinguished the work to its readership). Unfortunately, the “image obsessed” Disney is particularly guilty of this crime. Do you really believe that Disney would have allowed a “Slave Leia” had it been in charge of _Return of the Jedi? Do we really want to live in a world without a slave Leia? Would Luke have lost his hand in Empire? Sigh. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what Disney produces now that it owns the Star Wars franchise. ;(

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