Saturday, December 04, 2004

Open Source Science Fiction

In my high school years, I attended several science fiction conventions. At the time, Doctor Who was very popular, but there were regular Star Trek conventions, too.

No matter how big the convention was (and many were small Creation Entertainment events), I could always spend hours in the dealer room looking at what was on sale. As I recall, at the Doctor Who events, the dealer room was full of imported items that you wouldn't see on local store shelves. Yet, the dealer room at the Star Trek conventions were just as much fun. Of course there were Star Trek collectibles and commercial items, but the best part were the unofficial/unlicensed products.

You could buy note pads with the Starfleet logo on them, supposedly "leaked" scripts of future movies, handbuilt tricorders, and unofficial blueprints of Klingon vessels. There were faux leather book covers with "NCC-1701" embossed no them, red T-shirts with bulls-eyes on them that read "Starfleet Security," and a dozen other otherwise sundry items with Star Trek themes.

What made this bazaar such a wonderful place? The creativity of the dealers themselves. They weren't just resellers or collectors. They were passionate about Star Trek and it showed in the goods they crafted. Vendors tended to specialize in specific crew members or in ships of the fleet. There was even one vendor that featured all Jusdon Scott all the time!

I don't think the dealers made much money at this, but it was probably enough to pay for their products, the convention fees and their travel expenses.

If you go to a Star Trek convention today, most vendors will be selling the same few products you can buy at Toys-R-Us or Borders. Paramount cracked down in the mid- to late-eighties, and now, only officially licensed Star Trek items are allowed. Even if 95% of officially licensed Star Trek stuff were not crap, this would still be a very dull state of affairs. I don't expect Paramount to give maverick dealers a free ride, I'm just lamenting the inevitable consequences of corporate Star Trek. Besides, now that we have the inane Star Trek Enterprise series, they've polluted the brand, big time!

In thinking about ways to revive the original Trekker spirit, I came up with the idea of open source science fiction.

Is it legally possible to create a sci-fi universe that is licensed to the fans with rights to create derivative works? Let's call it "Open Universe."

Any Open Universe fan would have unrestricted rights to create their own Open Universe stories, artwork and collectibles (for profit). However, in return for this freedom, the licensee would have to provide the same open license to his customers.

Would it work? I'm not sure. If I were licensed to create a derivative work within the Open Universe, I might still infringe on a work from outside the Open Universe properties. For example, if I write a character in my Open Universe story called "Steve Austin" who happens to be bionic, I think this would infringe on the Six Million Dollar Man intellectual properties (I love that show, BTW). Still, the nice part about this model is that every writer/contributor is responsible for non-infringement within his or her own works.

There's also another model that's sort of interesting. Call it the "friendly licensor" model. Imagine that Paramount had a web site that allowed you to sell your custom Star Trek products across the Internet. They would take a cut of whatever sales you make and perform some vetting of products that appear on the site. Not gonna happen due to the liability issues, but interesting.

In researching this post, I've come across many instances of unauthorized Star Trek-related works. Maybe, the old dealer room still lives, somewhere out there on the Internet.

Why am I thinking of this now? I suppose that, as we watch monkey boys tear our world apart, escapism is looking more and more attractive. I haven't felt this uncomfortable on planet Earth since I was a nerdy high school misfit.

I'm through with this away-mission. Beam me up, Scotty!


Robin Zebrowski said...

See Cory Doctorow. He's the man behind, but he's written (I think) 3 books, all of which are available via creative commons license online (and also published the old fashioned way - we have one of his books in paperback), and all of which he apparently encourages people to tinker with and re-write for the sake of betterment (I assume).

Not exactly an Open Source universe, but exactly a step in the right direction, I think!

Doctor Logic said...

Hey, that Creative Commons stuff is pretty cool!

The Science Commons concept is especially interesting. In an age where copyrights are being extended ad infinitum (Mickey Mouse should have been public domain by now), the commercialization of scientific facts (e.g. genetic sequences) is quite chilling.