Copyright, Comics, and Compulsory Licensing

I don’t really have much to say here. Imma just quote a huge segment and suggest you go read the whole damn thing. While this says it’s about comics (mostly discusses Jack Kirby) I think it applies to all media.

Jack Kirby is the most commercially important creator in the history of American comic books. Kirby created or co-created Iron Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The Silver Surfer, Captain America, Thor, and The X-Men, among others. Collectively, Kirby’s creations are intellectual property worth billions, providing huge profits (and thousands of jobs) not only in comics but also on TV, in movies, and in toys.

But during Kirby’s commercial peak, in the early days of Marvel Comics, Kirby was often unhappy with his pay and with his rights as a creator. Furthermore, Marvel had a “gentleman’s agreement” with DC not to poach artists from each other, and no other comic book company had a stable of valuable superhero properties to hire Kirby to draw. As a result, Kirby’s pay wasn’t in line with the worth of his work.

Kirby didn’t stop working — how could he? He had a family to support. Plus, by all accounts, Kirby loved creating comics. But what Kirby did, according to Mark Evanier’s biography of Kirby, is stop creating new characters for Marvel. Instead, when Kirby thought of a new idea, he’d write it down on a scrap of paper and put the paper aside. Many of those papers got lost.

Eventually, Kirby was hired by DC comics, and he went on to create some powerful work. But DC rarely gave Kirby the support he needed (they even went so far as to have another artist redraw Kirby’s Superman faces, since Kirby’s faces didn’t look like DC’s then-existing house style). Even though his work remained artistically good, Kirby never again hit the same peak commercially, and his pay was still lousy. As soon as Kirby found work outside of comics — creating character sheets for Saturday morning animations — Kirby quit comics.

If the purpose of intellectual property law is to encourage the best artists to create as much of their best work as possible, then IP law failed Jack Kirby. Kirby’s interests weren’t protected.

Copyright feels like one of those double-edged swords. Can be used for both good and evil. While Pandagon suggests an alternative, I don’t know that there can be any system which is entirely foolproof. Or perhaps I should say lawyerproof? Anyway, food for thought.

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