Copyright: A Modest Destiny Indeed
Update: As of Sept 19th, the original site is down, however, here is an off-site archive of everything. Squidi linked to it at one point, so I presume it had his approval.
Squidi, the creator of the popular web comic A Modest Destiny has decided to give it up. This is unfortunate, because it was one of my regular reads, but not uncommon. Drawing any comic is demanding, and I've lost track of the number of people that have given it up over the past few years due to various pressures such as time, money, or simply the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the internet.
There are, however, two interesting things about the end of the comic. The first, and more important, is that if you've never read it, Squidi has posted the entire run as zipped chapters on his website. You can download these to browse at your leisure, and it's worth doing, because they're funny and well done. In fact, while the series has gotten darker, the first series, a year worth of comics, was some of the best webcomic-ing out there. He's only going to leave them up for a few weeks before he takes the entire site down, so, if you haven't ever read them, this will be your last knowable chance to see. (see update above.)
The second is that Squidi is a victim of the extremely harsh intellectual property war that's currently going on, and I don't think he even realizes it. I want to reflect on this.
If you read Squidi's current rant on the main page about why he's ending the comic, you may be confused about the history he alludes to. In a nutshell, here's what happened. A forum user in Penny Arcade's forums (Tubesteak Samurai, if I recall) used an avatar based on one of Squidi's characters. Squidi doesn't allow this kind of derivative use of his characters to pass unchallenged. He asked for the offending avatar to be pulled and was initially rebuffed by the forum authorities. Attempting to escalate the issue, he wrote to the creators of Penny Arcade, asking them to intervene. At some point in the exchange he mentioned that he had used legal action (or the threat of legal action) to force the removal of his content from other sites in the past. This was perceived as an empty threat and he was rebuffed again, publicly and rudely, and has been mocked for the incident to this very day. He's gotten quite bitter and defensive about the whole thing.
Most of the arguments I've seen about this have hinged around three points. Firstly, the dubious claim that pixel-based characters such as Squidi's are insufficiently distinctive to deserve copyright protection. Secondly, the resonable claim that derived forum avatars really ought to constitute fair use. Finally, the commonly held belief that, right or wrong, Squidi was being way way too prickly about this and should have just let the whole matter slide.
Regardless of the merit of these points, which really have been done to death in other forums, I'd like to say that I don't really think any of these things is the problem. I think these are merely symptoms of a greater problem, which is that the attempts by the corporate world to broaden intellectual property in general, and copyright in specific, have lead Squidi into a false position.
For decades, the corporate world has been trying to broaden their rights. in the past decade this has gotten pretty bad. We've got laws like the DMCA that strip away established fair use rights from citizens of the US. Explosive patent breadth that allows for the patenting of everything under the sun, inhibiting the advancement of the state of the art in direct contravention of the founders' intentions. Worst of all, these restrictions are being exported to the rest of the world via treaties, such as the recent CAFTA, which requires signatory nations to enforce DMCA-like provisions.
In fact, most intellectual property law traditionally existed to protect the little guy from the big guy. You write a book, or paint a painting, you get paid for it for a reasonable period. During that time, no one can copy it and sell it without your permission. Similarly, if you invent something, you get paid for that invention for a similarly reasonable period. Finally, if you start selling something under the name of tasty-taps, a huge food manufacturer can't suddenly start selling something called tasty-taps for half the price and ruin you. Copyright, patent, trademark.
That scenario has been transformed. Most intellectual property in the country is now being used by the big guys to crush, limit or stop the little guy. The copyright on any classic pieces of american art produced in the last 80 years is now so indefinite that the "reasonable period" might as well be infinite. It is common policy at large corporations to patent everything, no matter how obvious, because if the patent is granted they can use it to crush or extort competitors, especially small ones. Finally, with a combination of trademark and copyright law, corporations are continually assaulting the rights of the citizenry to use, modify and discuss the products that we get from them. Since these products are woven into the fabric of our very lives, this treads dangerously close to a free speech restriction. They use the law to crush fan sites, fan fiction and other derivative works, and even, through laws like the DMCA, attempt to practically restrict established rights such as archiving and review.
Accompanying all this is a constant barrage of propaganda that seeks to continually expand the borders of what Intellectual Property means, one millimeter at a time, often with distortions of the truth or what the law actually says. This effort has, sadly, been mostly successful, with your average person on the street unaware of the rights they actually have, or that, in fact, there was once a time that they could look forward to meaningful content entering the public domain on a continous basis. It's only understandable that content creators would begin to feel like these new wider boundaries on IP apply to them, as well.
But they don't. And therein lies Squidi's problem. The machine has been rebuilt from the ground up to serve corporate needs, and corporations have armies of lawyers and very very thick skins. Squidi clearly has neither of those things, and by trying to apply the same sort of all-controlling copyright regime that a corporation like Disney does, he has learned a harsh truth. Without the lawyers, people will actually use their own judgement in distinguishing between reasonable use and unreasonable use, and it's a far easier fit than the standard the corporate world currently applies. The weapons that the big guys use to force their definition of "reasonable" are just too big for Squidi to use, but he tried to use them anyway.
In the end, Squidi drew more fire than he could handle, because his actions kicked up a cloud of latent resentment. Resentment that's not aimed at him, but at the insane copyright regime that would control our culture and its art and artifacts. A lot of people are fed up with the way the IP war seems to be going, and anyone who takes the side of the oppressors, wittingly or unwittingly, may find themselves taking a metaphorical bullet meant for them.
I'll certainly miss the comic, I congratulate Squidi on his new child, and I hope that he can pick himself back up, dust himself off, and find a niche, any niche, that allows him to publish his work in way that makes him happy. But I don't think he can get the control he seems to want so desparately. In order to have the power to do so, he'd need to get a corporation on his side, and in order to get that, he would have to give up the self-same control to them, which I suspect is a far worse devil's bargain than the rough-and-tumble of the internet.