Interesting Philosophical Predicament

MCMMonday, March 30, 2009

The TorrentBoy Project is doing well so far, and over the weekend we got the first of the not-created-by-me artwork submitted by the prolific kdnewton. At the same time, I've fielded a few questions related to submitted content that bring up an interesting question that I want to contemplate publicly, because it's a vital part of the equation. The problem goes like this:

Let's say you're an artist. You draw a picture over the course of a week, and submit it to the Project. Because you created it, you actually own the rights to it, not the Project, so the Project has no power to grant anyone the right to commercialize your work. Nobody can take your artwork and stick it on a t-shirt and earn money from it without your authorization. Then again, they also can't commercialize a TorrentBoy work without secondary permission from the Project, because we're still working towards some semblance of quality control.

So. There are a few ways around this problem, none of which are the clear winners of any internal debate I might have. But I'll present them anyway:

  1. Any contributed content (pictures/words/music) would have at least some rights assigned to the Project, leaving the Project as the sole bottleneck to authorizing commercial products. The creator would have no say in what would be approved. This would require a contract to be drawn up, contributors to agree to it, and feels very much like a Facebook EULA where the artist signs away control to an entity that they have no direct influence over. If the wording of the contract were incredibly precise, it might not be too terrible, but I would imagine you couldn't get too precise with a set-up like this. Also, this doesn't touch the question of how/if to compensate artists whose work is used in products they themselves didn't create... do we take an additional % off profits if the product-maker and the content-creator aren't the same person? If so, how much?
  2. Create a system whereby all product approvals are run through a process... you find an image you like, make a t-shirt with it. The shirt is approved by the creator of the image, and then sent to the Project for final approval. Once both steps are complete the product is approved for sale. Again, this doesn't touch how creators would be compensated for their work if they weren't the ones making the products. And it adds a level of bureaucracy that worries me... I was already uncertain about requiring the Project to approve all new products, but this could seriously impede the growth of the franchise (especially if an artist doesn't check their email regularly, or forgets to approve things).
  3. Completely change the nature of the project. Make the TorrentBoy logo NC licensed, but all other content would be commercially useable. If you want to sell your officially-branded merchandise with the TorrentBoy logo on it, you need to get approval from the Project first. Rather than a 20% cut, you would give up 40% (or something) and the extra 20% would be funnelled to the creator of the content. The good part to this is that it's a lot easier to manage (you'd build in an exception where creators selling their own work don't need to remit 40%, just the 20%). The down side is that it means all content can be used without the TorrentBoy logo for free... so you could make a Crash t-shirt with someone else's work and not even send the 20% in. You could have duelling products with the same image, but one carries a logo and the other doesn't. This model vastly increases the chances of an outside entity coming in and packaging up Project work for mass distribution without contributing back. Then again, it's freer.

Those are the options I can think of at the moment. For right now, it's not a huge concern, because I think all the participants have in their heads an ideal that meshes well with #1. But as the pool grows and this gets more complex, this issue will be harder to control, so I think we need to find a solution now. But before we decide, there should be some brainstorming, to see if there isn't a better option.

Regardless, I think an important element would be the creation of a registration database for the Project, where creators can log their works and receive some kind of unique identifier number. It'd be far easier to say "this shirt features content #1928195391" than trying to explain "this shirt features that picture by Joey from early 2009... the picture of Crash. Not the one with the blaster, the one with the rose. And not the black and white one, the colour one...". Especially if we go with options 1 or 2, we're going to need to keep careful track of which creation is used on which product.

Thoughts or ideas? Leave them in the comments below or send them by email!

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