My daughter is a prolific writer in a world which, until recently, I did not know existed. She has written an introduction to this world, where strangers collaborate to create extensive new works of fiction together. It raises interesting issues for copyright reform, which seems to be proceeding without much input from people like her community.
The Internet is a big place. You'll be familiar with things like blogs or social network sites like Facebook or Twitter. But another part of the Internet you may not have visited reveals a whole other world, where people are brought together by creative writing. These sites are known as 'narrative writing role play sites', often shortened to 'RP sites'. These are not to be confused with RPG sites, which is a part of online gaming. RP sites are something different; the way they tend to work is you create a character to manage yourself and then create plots you would like to play out with them. Once you have an idea of what you want to do, you then find someone else on the site to roleplay out the situation with. Together with the other people you then create an intertwining network of stories.
No two RP sites are the same, although they are usually all roughly based on a love for a certain book series, film or TV show. While they may occupy the same narrative universe as their parent book, they usually do not tie into it at all. For example there is a book series beloved of early teens named Warrior Cats, where the general concept is of groups of cats living together as clans. These clans have to work with one another to survive while upholding their ancient, warrior traditions. Sites based on this book series are loosely tied to these concepts but the character designs and plots are all original creations created by the people within the sites.
Which begs the question, what do the authors of these books think of these sites? Most authors tend to accept them -- some even visit the sites personally -- but in general authors consider them to be some sort of fanfiction. That's not a description most of the people involved on these sites would share. They would say since their sites are full of original content that it is creative writing in its own right and that it deserves to have the rights of its authors respected. Indeed, some of the forum hosts have technology which alerts the staff when things are copied from that forum.
But what can they do if content gets copied? Not an awful lot. In a discussion with some of the forum members on these sites I discovered that textual copying is not the only problem. They told me sometimes they have discovered a character with a name and personality similar or even the same as their own original characters in the author's new books. Most of the people take this as a compliment -- their character is a creation good enough to spawn the interest of the author. All the same, these occurrences raise the question whether this sort of thing is really alright.
These characters are all original characters after all. Every aspect was created by one of the forum members right down to their personality. What is really stopping the authors or other people using these unique sites as a character mining system when their own ideas run out? If this were the other way round, people would say that this is 'intellectual property theft' which needs to be stopped.
New copyright law is being drafted. What is it going to do for my community? Will it create meaningful protection for the rights of peer authors in RP sites? Or will it simply treat us as "consumers", at best with no rights and at worst as if we're abusing the rights of the original authors? We're not the only kind of peer creators in the world of copyright; I hope the legislators know we exist!
by Miriam Phipps
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