On Nov. 23, the website ComicBook reported that, “for copyright reasons,” Disney had deleted Baby Yoda GIFs from Giphy, the online GIF database. Why? Giphy declined to elaborate fully, simply stating that it (not Disney) removed Baby Yoda content because of “confusion” that has now been resolved. But like the ostensibly happy ending of “Return of the Jedi,” this outcome may indicate grimmer things to come. Not only did the kerfuffle alarm devotees of Baby Yoda, but it also pointed out what’s wrong with media corporations’ views of fans and fandom today.
We still don’t know at this point whether Giphy took down the Baby Yoda GIFs at Disney’s behest or without any prompting, but both possibilities are worrisome. If Disney called for the removal, fans would be right to fault Disney for trying to dampen people’s enthusiasm for its own product, just to prevent its intellectual property from being circulated online without authorization. (For the record, GIFs can be considered “transformative” and therefore probably represent fair use of copyrighted material.) But if Disney didn’t prompt GIFgate, that’s even worse, because it means that Giphy acted preemptively, out of fear that Disney might object to its IP running wild through the Internet. No one wants to be sued by Disney — a company that has played a significant role in the creation of our current, onerous copyright regime. After all, the Mouse has enough money and lawyers to eradicate infringers with a swish of its tail.
But that’s exactly the problem. No individual or organization should be afraid to contribute to the GIF-sharing economy because they dread legal retribution from a mega corporation. When fans use media IP — when they post and reblog and retweet GIF sets, when they publish fan fiction and commentary and remixes online, when they gush over a film or television series or video game or other type of copyrighted content to their social media networks — they are promoting that media content, not harming its owners. As I’ve argued in my academic work, including in my book “Rogue Archives,” fans do a great deal of “free labor” to market their favorite media titles. Fans are engaging in such labor when they quote, cosplay, remix, socially network and convention-organize around their favorite properties. That work keeps other fans invested in a film or television series or video game universe, and attracts new fans to that universe, which maintains or increases the value of that universe’s IP.
But when media corporations restrict their intellectual property aggressively, they end up detracting from their own interests, effectively preventing fans from amplifying the signal. Earlier this week, I witnessed a conversation on Twitter in which two young writers discussed whether it would even be legal to mention specific pop culture texts in their fiction. In other words, they are reluctant to write sentences like “She was listening to Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover’ ” (my example, not theirs), because they worry they may be sued for merely naming a copyrighted property.
This may be an extreme case, but these are the kinds of anxieties that result from the “war against piracy” that media companies have waged since the dawn of digital culture in the mid-1980s. Since then, corporations have spent millions on lobbying elected officials to change copyright policies and laws to favor their interests; they have issued takedowns and cease-and-desists and other forms of legal threats to individuals and platforms; they have simply removed content from the Internet without explanation or notice (as seemingly happened with the Baby Yoda GIFs); and they have disseminated advertising warnings that aim to persuade digital users that they should never “steal” media companies’ IP.
These companies fail to grasp that the war they launched hurts them and damages their brands. If fans fall silent for fear of legal reprisals, they’re not going to promote the content that IP owners are putting out. And without fans continually marketing media properties, getting new fans involved in their communities, and calling for new installations, how will companies know to greenlight reboots or spinoffs of any of their IP?
Media companies don’t see that the wildest franchise successes, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, and all of the Disney princess productions, are long-tail phenomena, and that, to have media properties last several human lifetimes, they need fans doing decades-long work. Without fans engaging in their practices of appropriation, transformation and commentary, media corporations would have little idea which of their properties were worth restarting or continuing, or remaking as live-action features, or adapting into animated series. Media corporations operate on what I call “media time” in “Rogue Archives,” not “fan time.” Media time is short and linear. In media time, a film, television series or whatever else debuts and is heavily promoted, then disappears when a new piece of content debuts and is heavily promoted — much as “The Mandalorian” will probably take a back seat to the marketing blitz of “The Rise of Skywalker”when the film hits theaters in December. Fan time is prolonged and circular, like that of the Star Wars franchise more generally. Fans stay emotionally invested in material that has had an impact on them, and they cycle back to their favorite titles again and again.
Capitalism works on media time, rendering commodities obsolete quickly so that it can constantly entice consumers to buy new ones. But human culture — the way that people engage with the world, including with art and music and film and television and books and games — operates on fan time. If only media companies could relinquish their efforts to tightly control their IP, giving fans leeway to fuel their creative and community practices, they would make even more money on fan time than they do on media time.