Mar 252015

I recently stalled out on the Saturday Serial because I was looking at Travis’ tech versus Metis and Dani’s tech, and it didn’t feel sufficiently advanced. But I started looking at tech in my own lifetime and across the various places I’ve lived and across generations…and started wondering if maybe I’m making a mountain of a molehill.

One of the problems is that I really hadn’t sat down and worked out timelines. Travis’ grandmother makes a comment at one point that clearly indicates she was a young adult when Sumisu was assassinated. Assuming standard/average generational spans of twenty years, that puts Travis’ teen years a scant thirty-five or so years later.

Having survived at least thirty-five years of technology change, I can wrap my mind around that. I can remember rotary phones, push-button phones, cradleless corded phones, cordless phones, “brick” cell phones, flip cell phones, small cell phones, and the whole range of smart phones. When I started elementary school, my family had a rotary phone land line. When I was in college fifteen years later, my roommate and I had a push-button cordless landline and were trying to figure out where to put a splitter so we could go online without cutting off the phone. By the time I finished college, I had a cell phone because my parents were worried about me because I was constantly driving all over Texas. These days, my parents still have their landline, but I live off my smartphone and can’t even conceive of having a landline again.

And that’s just kindergarten through today. That’s just the change in phone technology. We could talk about computers (which we had when I was eight, where I drew bubble pictures in a pixelated paint program, and today I have my own computer where I produce voiceover, graphic design, and video projects), or media storage (If you ever want to have fun, try explaining a 3.5″ floppy disk to a teenager. If that wasn’t enough fun, explain punch cards, which my grandfather programmed with.). We could talk about cars, which is kind of a huge exploration of change as consumers’ needs and wants have changed over time. We could talk about appliances. We could talk about so much.

While we’ve had these amazing changes in the technology we work with in our daily lives, there’s so much that isn’t different. I sit in my parents’ house, the house I lived in during middle school, and I think about just how little is really different in this house between then and now. Eleven-year-old-me could walk into this house and generally recognize the world around her. She would look at my computer and phone and wonder if she walked into a real life/M.A.S.K. mashup, but otherwise there’s little she wouldn’t know and understand. While the technology has changed, the world really hasn’t.

Part of my concern arises, not from the level of technology present, but from the level of technology present in each character’s life. Metis is a journalist in a high-tech company, and she netruns in her free time. Her lifestyle involves high contact with technology. Dani, who is maybe fifteen years younger than Metis, is a student who does part of her advanced studies through a distance learning program she accesses through a tablet, and then goes to her netrunning internship, and then spends her free time in the virtual world. She doesn’t know what it means to function without technology. It’s as common to her as clothing.

Travis, roughly twenty years younger than Dani, designs technical art and animation, and then she comes home and reads e-books and listens to music through her tablet. Because of the nature of her family life, she studied exclusively through distance learning programs on her tablet. Technology is a tool, but Travis sets it aside to gaze out windows, to go out with her grandparents and friends. She has a different mindset toward technology than Metis or Dani, and so it feels like I’m presenting a lower level of technology in her time than I do in earlier times, when really I’m just presenting a character who’s less engaged with technology than characters in those other times.

It’s really interesting to think about, because we feel like living in the future should feel distinctly futuristic to our younger selves. And yet, barring major innovation or disaster, progress moves on at a certain rate. And that’s something to keep in mind while working on worldbuilding for a world that spans generations.

Mar 232015

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

If you’ve read this blog for any period of time, you know that I used to write fan fiction, and now I support and encourage fancraft as a means of learning and being part of a community of practice. It’s kind of funny when you think about it, because I don’t normally encourage violating copyright, and that’s exactly what fancraft is. Yes, creators and copyright holders tend to look the other way where fancraft and copyright are concerned, but ultimately those who create fancrafts, regardless of the medium, are violating the copyright holder’s rights, specifically where questions of derivative work and commercialization are involved.

All fancraft is derivative work. Regardless of whether painstakingly recreating every detail of a costume for cosplay, writing fan fiction incorporating one or more fandoms, or producing videos that involve clips, the fancrafter is violating the copyright holder’s exclusive right to create derivative works. In some cases (and those mashup cosplayers are getting out of control…in very entertaining ways sometimes), fancrafters are creating amazing derivative works that really engage with the property. In others, fancrafters are exploring seams between properties as they mash them together. In some cases, the fancrafter is just recreating or responding to the original property. Sometimes, they’re transforming their understanding and relationship with the property, taking their viewers along for the ride.

Some fancrafters sell their derivative works. Remember, commercialization of a copyrighted property is a right granted solely to the copyright holder. Some copyright holders do not support commercialized fancraft, and let the fancrafters know…sometimes in unfriendly, legal ways. Some are fine with it, to the point they see it as a flattering response to their work and the property. There are cases, more and more, where arrangements are made to allow fancrafters to legally create and profit from their fancraft.

There are some fancrafts, usually limited to fanzines, blogs, and videos, that actually fall under Fair Use. These writers, bloggers, vloggers, and satirists are utilizing some part of the copyrighted material to report on, criticize, or conduct research. However, even this is a rocky ledge with a lot of loose rocks. It’s a short step from utilizing almost too much of the original in your satirical criticism to profiting from your work.

So…long story short: Except in situations where a copyright holder has given explicit permission, fancraft is the most amazing copyright violation. Practice with pride….and extreme caution.

Mar 182015

Often when you see a story online, it’ll offer certain descriptors to help potential readers decide whether or not to read it. Let’s face it: Even the most open-minded reader tends to have certain things they’re looking for from their reading material. Most commonly, the major deciding factor is the story’s genre, and possibly the subgenre. That’s fine. That’s how we’re used to organizing books. That’s how we see them organized in libraries and bookstores. We understand this as a means of classifying a book.

As more and more people move into writing either as a hobby or as a self-published professional (I say this because it’s where I’ve seen this happen most often), there seems to be a problem of understanding what genre is. So let’s start there. Genre is the general category a book (or other piece of media) can be classified as. We’re talking classifications like nonfiction, business, fantasy, science fiction, romance, etc. Within many genres, there are subgenres. For example, science fiction includes the subgenres dystopia, space exploration, cyberpunk, and steampunk. (Fear not. This is not an exhaustive list of sci-fi’s subgenres.)

In each of these cases, there is a category that helps the reader sort out what the book was most likely about. If I pick up a book listed as being in the fantasy genre, I’m not expecting it to teach me how become better at managing my freelance career. Sounds simple enough, right. The assigned genre categorizes the type of story the reader can expect.

The problem is that these up-and-coming and independent writers are often told to choose the genre where their book would most likely be found in a bookstore, and so they choose Young Adult. Well, bookstores and libraries do have children’s and teen sections, so that could potentially make sense. Except…within those sections, books are still organized by genres. The books aren’t jumbled all together; they are grouped the same way the other books are.

What? Why? How is that fair?

It’s because the classifications Young Adult and Middle Grade aren’t genres. They tell you nothing about what the book is most likely going to be about. What they do tell you is the age group most likely to resonate with the book. So, a Young Adult fantasy novel is more likely to be accessible and relatable for a middle school student than a fantasy novel from the general stacks. They’re age bands, not genres. (They’re also not meant to discourage any age group from reading what they like. I’m not ashamed to admit I reach for a YA novel before I reach for anything in general fantasy or science fiction.)

So, if you are writing and feel the need to claim you write in the Young Adult genre, march yourself into a library or bookstore (I actually advocate marching into many libraries and bookstores *grin*) and spend some time just acquainting yourself with what’s in the section and how everything is laid out and grouped together. It’ll go a long way to helping you sound more ready to join the authors on those shelves.

Mar 162015

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

Remixing has become an important part of our culture. We learn through remixing. We comment through remixing. We share inside jokes through remixing. We entertain through remixing. If you’re at all familiar with Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything’s a Remix“, you know that remixing is actually not a modern concept. We just seem to have the most sarcastic sense of humor about how we approach it.

For those unfamiliar with the practice, remixing is when you take a sample (or a number of samples) from one or more sources and put them together in a new creation. If you’ve been reading this entire series, that statement probably just triggered a number of thoughts. Remixing, like adaptation and fan fiction, is a treacherous path to go as a creator. Where some creator/copyright holders are flattered to be sampled in a successful remix, others are very protective of their copyright and have no trouble expressing that to remixers.

The problem is, the material being sampled is often under copyright, and not all remixers think to check out the copyrights of their samples or to pursue proper permissions. Even worse, some remixers take a sample they know is copyrighted, and try to claim Fair Use. If they can get explicit permission or a license to use the sample, that’s the best outcome. If they can find Public Domain materials to sample, they’re in the clear. When they try to claim Fair Use, they’re often on the same shaky ground fancraft creators are.

Remember that Fair Use allows for a minor portion of a copyrighted artifact to be used for specific reasons, including education and critique. If you can prove your remix falls under either of those categories, you might stand a chance. If you make a profit off the remix, you won’t.

I realize I sound like I’m bashing remixers, but I’m no more against them than I am against fancraft creators. In so many cases, it’s an honest artist who doesn’t understand copyright (when it’s so easy to educate yourself). I do think remixing is a great learning opportunity and it provides an interesting venue for analyzing and criticizing material. There are a number of YouTube channels that prove this on a semi-regular basis.

Remixing has its place in our culture, but it’s a copyright landmine that has to be approached with care and respect.

Mar 112015

I recently received the following fortune from a cookie: If you understand what you’re doing, you’re not learning anything.

And I realized that’s not entirely true. It assumes that you’re practicing rote routines, the way dancers, musicians, and athletes do in order to commit a performance to muscle memory. But even those groups don’t mindlessly practice. They engage in deliberate practice, which I’ve blogged about before. They pick out a section that’s not going smoothly, that’s tripping them up for whatever reason, and they work on it until it’s no longer an obstacle. They might slow down their practice. They might overpractice. They change something about how they’re practicing the trouble spot so they can get it down and move past it.

Even if you aren’t engaged in deliberate practice, you are opening yourself to learning more than you realize in a general practice session. As you work through your practice, as you reflect on your practice, you can actually engage in deep learning, gaining a more thorough and comprehensive understanding of what you’re working on. Depending on the skill set you’re practicing, you may even gain an awareness or better understanding of the systems related to your craft. When you can see where your work fits within the whole of the craft, it can give you better insight and sharpen your focus in your practice.

If you find yourself practicing to rote, mindlessly repeating work, shake things up. Your work will be better for it.

Mar 092015

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

It seems like every time we turn around, we hear about another book or comic book being adapted into a movie or television show. Is nothing original anymore? (No, and it hasn’t been in a long time.) However, adaptations are one of those situations where copyright comes heavily into play.

Adaptation is when a story exists in one medium, and then is retold in another medium. For example, X-Men originally existed as a comic book. But over the years, those stories have been adapted into at least different cartoon series and an ever-expanding list of movies. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a single X-Men cartoon or movie that presents an original X-Men story never before seen in a comic book. X-Men is a poor example, though, because copyright holder Marvel has had a pretty heavy hand in each adaptation. We’d run into a similar problem trying to discuss Harry Potter, where JK Rowling has been involved with the adaptation process as her books became first movies, and then a website.

But then you look at a property like Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose first season was adapted into a movie at the discretion of copyright holder Nickelodeon without really consulting the creators. (I am aware both Konietzko and DiMartino have said Shyamlan occasionally asked them questions, but it was very clear that their vision was set aside for Shyamalan’s.)

In some of these cases, it was the copyright holder engaging their right to remix and create derivative works. In others, the person wanting to create the adaptation had to license the property from the copyright holders. Where it’s a copyrighted creation being adapted, licensing is about the only way a non-copyright holder can play with a favorite property legally.

But what if the material being adapted is available under a Creative Commons license or in the public domain (and I promise, we will get to that)? Then that makes things easier, as we have seen from the countless Shakespeare adaptations we’ve all been subjected to (or genuinely enjoyed)…as long as the conditions are followed for properties licensed under Creative Commons.

Mar 042015

One of the benefits of participating in a community of practice is that the community is often made up of practitioners of varying levels. I’m pretty sure I’ve written on this before, because communities of practice where there are multiple skill levels present are ripe spaces for peer teaching, for craft-related discussion, and for craft innovation and evolution.

But there are problems involved with communities of practice that come together organically. Members do not only have different levels of experience, but there’s often no uniformity in their training or skill development, which can lead to differences within similar skill levels and a lack of common vocabulary for talking to each other and to other skill levels. There is also a problem for both those who are formally trained or self-taught in that self-assessment, especially in relation to others in the group, can be cloudy. Ego and self-esteem play a part in this, but fairly often it comes down to our ability to look at our own capabilities objectively. This can lead to situations where an experienced person doesn’t share their knowledge because they don’t feel they have the right, or where a newer practitioner feels the need to offer too much advice (too often proceeded by the word, “ideally”) when they should be listening to those who’ve already made those mistakes.

There is much the experienced voice has to offer. For one, they’ve already been there. They’ve made mistakes and learned from them. That’s why advice in communities of practice often flow from the experienced to the new. They’re the voice of authority. That’s also why advice tends to flow more freely among practitioners of similar skill level. They all have this set of knowledge and skills, and can learn from each other as they talk about how they got there and what experiments they tried in getting to this level. It can be intimidating to the new practitioner, because they often think they have nothing to contribute to the conversation, or that their own experiences are silly next to that of the more experienced members.

And that’s where the new practitioner is wrong. Their voice is just as valuable. Their point of view most likely hasn’t been boxed in by traditions and expectations of the craft, giving them an opening to say something that can spark a conversation that leads to new directions for the craft. Depending on their training route, a new practitioner speaking up is in the best position to trigger a peer teaching moment as what they say demonstrates where they are in their own skill development and training. The experienced practitioner can then correct any misguided notion the new member has acquired, or give them the nudge they need to level up. This does unfortunately lead to the occasional situation where an experienced member feels threatened by someone in the up-and-coming crop and tries to troll them out of the group, but an aware community can catch this and minimize its damage to the new practitioner.

Ultimately, communities of practice are made stronger by having members of various skill levels, experience, and training, especially where there is an environment that encourages and supports all members interacting comfortably, regardless of their background and current skill level.

Mar 022015

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

The fourth, and final, criterion of the Fair Use doctrine is typically the make-or-break point for whether or not a new creation will be granted Fair use protection. And for good reason. It looks at how the new material impacts the earning power of the original material. Basically, if your new creation will seriously impede the original creator’s income, Fair Use is no longer part of the equation.

For someone in a reporting or scholarly position, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re not affecting sales with your work. You may even tell yourself that your work will bring the original copyrighted material to more people’s attention, and therefore you’re really just doing some free marketing (even if you yourself are profiting off the new creation). This isn’t much different than the points of difference conversation; you’re lying to yourself to make yourself feel better about doing something you know you shouldn’t be. If your reporting, reviewing, or scholarly presentation fails any earlier criterion, then it most likely will fail on this one, too.

That said, you can pass on every other Fair Use count, but fail here. Copyright exists to protect the copyright holder, and so does Fair Use.

Unfortunately for creators, courts look at the amount and significance of content used in new material, not the tone. That means someone can write a negative review of the copyrighted material, using non-significant clips to make their point, and not violate the original material’s copyright. (It often amazes me how many authors don’t understand that difference, and how many book reviewing sites are starting to bow to authors’ ignorance on this point.) While the negative criticism may adversely impact future sales, the criticism itself does not necessarily infringe on copyright. I can’t say that loudly enough.

So, there you go. Fair Use, and its four criteria. It’s not easy to prove for a very good reason. If you’re unsure, check out the resources I added to the first Fair Use post.

Feb 232015

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

Today, we tackle the third criterion of the Fair Use doctrine: the amount and substantiality of the copyrighted material used in the new material.

The amount of the original used is pretty straightforward. If you use the entire copyrighted work, you need a license or legal permission. If you aren’t, then courts will review how much of the original copyrighted work you are using against how you’re using it and why you’re using it. For those who enjoy gaming systems, there really is no magical number here; it really does depend on how you’ve met other Fair Use criteria. I’ve seen people try to claim “points of difference” (enumerating the ways your work deviates from the original), but there’s no actual law supporting that. If you find yourself trying to argue points of difference in your work, stop. The only reason someone does that is because they know they’re in the wrong and trying to assuage their guilt. Your best options are to make right what you know is wrong, or to drop it and move along.

Substantiality is a bit more challenging, and not just because that’s a hard word to say…or type out, for that matter. What’s really being looked at here is how important or significant is the selection from the original copyrighted material. If your material is incorporating the most important or significant parts of the original, you’ve created a situation that threatens the original’s market value (which we’ll cover in the next post). If someone can see the best parts of the original in your new creation, why would they need to see the original? You’ve effectively just spoiled it for them.

The best advice I can offer here is: If your gut is telling you you’re doing it wrong, you probably are. Stop. Take a step back from your work. See if there’s another way to accomplish your goals without violating someone else’s copyright and without trying to turn yourself into a whiny victim.

Feb 162015

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

The second criterion for the Fair Use doctrine concerns the nature of the work. The new work, that is. How will this new material be used? Why is it being created? These are important questions in establishing whether or not something is Fair Use.

Is this new material being created for factual purposes, like research or teaching, or is being created for artistic reasons, like adaptations or remixes? Historically, new material being created for factual purposes have legally secured the right to use copyrighted material under Fair Use more often than material being created for artistic reasons. It’s almost easier to see and understand when something is being used in a limited, factual manner than when it is being used in a broad or creative manner, making the ruling easier.

If the material, factual or creative, is intended to be consumed, like workbooks, then it is not protected by Fair Use, and the creator has to go through licensing channels if they want to use the material. If the source material is unpublished, then the author’s right of first publishing comes into play and it becomes much harder for the creator of the new material to prove Fair Use.

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