Sharing — or stealing? — Trek

In a neat coincidence, yesterday’s New York Times featured two articles that intersect around the concerns of internet piracy and intellectual property rights on the one hand, and struggles between fan creators and “official” owners of a transmedia franchise on the other. On the Opinions page, Rutgers professor Stuart P. Green’s essay “When Stealing Isn’t Stealing” examines the Justice Department’s case against the file-sharing site Megaupload and the larger definitions of property and theft on which the government’s case is based. Green traces the evolution of a legal philosophy in which goods are understood in singular terms as something you can own or have taken away from you; as he puts it, “for Caveman Bob to ‘steal’ from Caveman Joe meant that Bob had taken something of value from Joe — say, his favorite club — and that Joe, crucially, no longer had it. Everyone recognized, at least intuitively, that theft constituted what can loosely be defined as a zero-sum game: what Bob gained, Joe lost.”

It’s flattering to have my neanderthal namesake mentioned as the earliest of criminals, and not entirely inappropriate, as I myself, a child of the personal-computer revolution, grew up with a much more elastic and (self-)forgiving model of appropriation, one based on the easy and theoretically limitless sharing of data. As Green observes, Caveman Bob’s descendants operate on radically different terrain. “If Cyber Bob illegally downloads Digital Joe’s song from the Internet, it’s crucial to recognize that, in most cases, Joe hasn’t lost anything.” This is because modern media are intangible things, like electricity, so that “What Bob took, Joe, in some sense, still had.”

Green’s point about the intuitive moral frameworks in which we evaluate the fairness of a law (and, by implication, decide whether or not it should apply to us) accurately captures my generation’s feeling, back in the days of vinyl LPs and audiocassettes, that it was no big deal to make a mix tape and share it with friends. For that geeky subset of us who then flocked to the first personal computers — TRS-80s, Apple IIs, Commodore 64s and the like — it was easy to extend that empathic force field to excuse the rampant copying and swapping of five-and-a-quarter inch floppy disks at local gatherings of the AAPC (Ann Arbor Pirate’s Club). And while many of us undoubtedly grew up into the sort of upstanding citizens who pay for every byte they consume, I remain to this day in thrall to that first exciting rush of infinite availability promised by the computer and explosively realized by the Web. While I’m aware that pirating content does take money out of its creators’ pockets (a point Green is careful to acknowledge), that knowledge, itself watered down by the scalar conceit of micropayments, doesn’t cause me to lose sleep over pirating content the way that, say, shoplifting or even running a stop sign would. The law is a personal as well as a public thing.

The other story in yesterday’s Times, though, activates the debate over shared versus protected content on an unexpected (and similarly public/personal) front: Star Trek. Thomas Vinciguerra’s Arts story “A ‘Trek’ Script is Grounded in Cyberspace” describes the injunction brought by CBS/Paramount to stop the production of an episode of Star Trek New Voyages: Phase II, an awkwardly-named but loonily inspired fan collective that has, since 2003, produced seven hours of content that extend the 1966-1969 show. Set not just in the universe of the original series but its specific televisual utopos, the New Voyages reproduce the sets, sound effects, music, and costumes of 60s Trek in an ongoing act of mimesis that has less to do with transformative use than with simulation: the Enterprise bridge in particular is indistinguishable from the set designed by Matt Jeffries, in part because it is based on those designs and subsequent detailing by Franz Joseph and other fan blueprinters.

I’ve watched four of the seven New Voyages, and their uncanny charm has grown with each viewing. For newcomers, the biggest distraction is the recasting of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and other regulars by different performers whose unapologetic roughness as actors is more than outweighed by their enthusiasm and attention to broad details of gesture: it’s like watching very, very good cosplayers. And now that the official franchise has itself been successfully rebooted, the sole remaining indexical connection to production history embodied by Shatner et al has been sundered. Everybody into the pool, er, transporter room!

I suspect it is the latter point — the sudden opening of a frontier that had seemed so final, encouraging every fan with a camera and an internet connection to partake in their own version of what Roddenberry pitched as a “wagon train to the stars” — that led CBS to put the kibosh on the New Voyages production of Norman Spinrad’s “He Walked Among Us,” a script written in the wake of Spinrad’s great Trek tale “The Doomsday Machine” but never filmed due to internal disputes between Roddenberry and Gene Coon about how best to rewrite it. (The whole story, along with other unrealized Trek scripts, makes for fascinating reading at Memory Alpha.) Although Spinrad was enthusiastic about the New Voyages undertaking and even planned to direct the episode, CBS, according to the Times story, decided to exert its right to hold onto the material, perhaps to publish it or mount it as some sort of online content themselves.

All of which brings us back to the question of Caveman Bob, Caveman Joe, and their cyber/digital counterparts. Corporate policing of fan production is nothing new, although Trek‘s owners have always encouraged a more permeable membrane between official and unofficial contributors than does, say, Lucasfilm. But the seriousness of purpose evidenced by the New Voyages, along with the fan base it has itself amassed, have elevated it from the half-light of the fannish imaginary — a playspace simultaneously authorized and ignored by the powers that be, like the kid-distraction zones at a McDonalds — to something more formidable, if not in its profit potential, then in its ability to deliver a Trek experience more authentic than any new corporate “monetization.” By operationalizing Spinrad’s hitherto forgotten teleplay, New Voyages reminds us of the immense generative possibilities that reside within Trek‘s forty-five years of mitochondrial DNA, waiting to be realized by anyone with the requisite resources and passion. And that’s genuinely threatening to a corporation who formerly relied on economies of scale to ensure that only they could produce new Trek at anything like the level of mass appeal.

But in proceeding as if this were the case, Green might suggest, CBS adheres to an obsolete logic of property and theft, one that insists on the uniqueness and unreproducibility of any given instantiation of Trek. They have not yet embraced the idea that, in the boundless ramifications of a healthy transmedia franchise, there is only ever “moreness”; versions do not cancel each other out, but drive new debates about canonicity and comparisons of value, fueling the discursive games that constitute the texture of an engaged and appreciative fandom. The New Voyages take nothing away from official Trek, because subtraction is an impossibility in the viral marketplace of new media. The sooner CBS realizes this, the better.

Copyright on the Fabrication Frontier

This post from the New York Times Bits blog is one of the first I’ve seen to address the problems — and opportunities — likely to be created by personal-fabrication technology, aka 3D printing, when it encounters copyright law designed for an earlier era. As Nick Bilton points out, having a box on your desktop that manufactures solid objects from data files opens the door to the physical reproduction not just of objects you have designed yourself, but objects that already exist:

Not only will it change the nature of manufacturing, but it will further challenge our concept of ownership and copyright. Suppose you covet a lovely new mug at a friend’s house. So you snap a few pictures of it. Software renders those photos into designs that you use to print copies of the mug on your home 3-D printer. Did you break the law by doing this? You might think so, but surprisingly, you didn’t.

Bilton goes on to explain that while copyright law protects one kind of object — the aesthetic — from being replicated without permission of the owner, another class of item — the utilitarian — is fair game. “If an object is purely aesthetic it will be protected by copyright, but if the object does something, it is not the kind of thing that can be protected,” Bilton quotes attorney Michael Weinberg as saying. The logic goes something like this: if you could conceivably have made your own version of the mug in, say, a pottery class, it wouldn’t be illegal; so employing a hardware intermediary to accomplish the same goal is similarly allowed.

The apparently tidy distinction between the artful and the useful suggests that there is more at stake here than simply case law and precedent, the glacial patching of traditional legislation to apply to nontraditional processes and products. (Lawrence Lessig’s remix culture might here be understood as replication culture.) In addition to foregrounding the question of how we name and assign value to the things around us, personal fabrication foregrounds new kinds of objects that fall somewhere between the pretty and the practical, neither toy nor tool but something in between, with branded identities and iconographic affordances that make them the powerful focus of manufacturing and collecting, as well as performative and procedural, activity both at the subcultural and “supercultural” level.

I’ve been interested in 3D printing since 2007, when I came across Neil Gershenfeld’s book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop. (Gershenfeld is the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and perhaps the key proselytizer of what the Times has labeled the Industrial Revolution 2.0.) For me, as a theorist and fan of popular culture and fantastic media franchises in particular, the profound shakeup promised by 3D printing is less about designing new kinds of widgets or copying existing ones than about the way that fantasy-media objects and the practices around them will be reshaped. Spaceship models, superhero collectible busts, even fantasy-wargaming miniatures — the colorful statuary on display in any comic-book store, materialized forms of what otherwise exists only on paper — will inevitably find their place within the personal-fabrication movement. Most of these objects are licensed, of course, and provided by artists under contract with companies like Sideshow Collectibles and McFarlane Toys. But to adapt the question that Bilton poses, what will happen when I can snap several photos of a friend’s Green Lantern maquette or Warhammer 40K mini, stitch them together on my iPhone (you can bet there’ll be an app for that), send the resulting shape file to my 3D printer, and produce my own instance?

Surely then the intellectual-property hammer will come down — under current codes, there’s no way to justify a Captain Kirk figurine or the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver as a practical rather than an aesthetic object — and we’ll witness not the elimination of unlicensed fantasy-media objects, but their migration to the anarchic wilds of piracy, newsgroups, and torrents, just as current “flat” media content like television, movies, and ebooks circulate free for the taking. To date I’ve found little discussion of the role of such objects and their probable audiences, i.e. tech-savvy scofflaws, in the 3D printing literature, which focuses instead on the rapid-prototyping function of these emerging technologies: testing out new inventions or generating workaday things like flashlights and doorknobs. But it’s precisely this dividing line, between the things we use and the things we enjoy because they connect us to vast transmedia entertainment systems, that will dictate 3D printing’s future as the commercial and cultural juggernaut I suspect it will be.