Monday, February 4, 2013

Slender Man and the role of Folk Monsters in the Public Domain




For anyone unfamiliar with Slender Man, take a minute to watch this video from the youtube series “Marble Hornets.” 



Slenderman was created in 2009 by users of the Something Awful forums, as part of a Photoshop contest to create a supposedly real monster, which was then sent to paranormal activity websites and reported as real.  Since then, the character has been at the center of numerous youtube series, as well as fan made video games such as Slender and countless ensuing “reaction” videos.  What is significant about the character is not so much its increasing presence in the popular consciousness, however, but the way in which its existence flouts existing copyright law.

Slenderman, as created by Victor Surge.
As reported last week by NPR’s “On the Media,” barely any copyrighted works will enter the public domain this year.  Thanks to the manipulation of copyright laws over the last few decades, the length of time required for a work to become public has created not just limitations on wider distribution of existing work (the ability to publish Slaughterhouse Five for free online, for example) but the existence of numerous “orphan works”.  These lost children of copyright law are the works which are unpublishable, due to the inability to contact or determine the owner.  The fear driving this limitation of access is the potential appearance of an otherwise unknown copyright holder, limiting the ability to digitize or make available the material.   Constituting photographs, musical recordings, novels and every other type of media, these pieces of “intellectual property” sit unavailable in museum, libraries and private collections.  Estimates place as many as twenty five million of them in the UK alone. 

Which brings us back to Slenderman and how IP laws are potentially unequipped to handle the internet.  As discussed on this forum, Slenderman has no distinct owner.  Though originated by the Something Awful forum member Victor Surge, Slenderman saw a subsequent “crowd sourced” approach to his creation.  Various different groups and individuals added to or ignored elements of mythology based around the central image crated by Surge.  Though copyright law might cover individual uses of Slenderman, such as in the web series EverymanHyrbrid, those laws would not really be applicable to original creations involving the same character.  Though no one has laid legal claim as of yet, things might be different if some major studio or network were to mass release a profitable entertainment utilizing the Slenderman character.  However, no one involved in the creative process has stepped forward to claim any type of ownership, even as the character’s popularity has spread into explicit merchandising.  


On a psychological level, it is fitting that Slenderman emerged in 2009, the same year as the height of American “financial crisis” and the beginnings of the bank bailout.  It is unsurprising that such a creature emerged out of a time in which our lives seem controlled by anonymous men in business suits, lurking in the shadows of everything from the housing market to lobbyist driven politics.  Just as all monsters reflect our collective fear, Slenderman joins a number of other popular monsters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Gentelmen...

The Gentlemen
 ...to Doctor Who’s The Silence.

The Silence
While those monsters share a wardrobe and lack of voice, Slenderman goes two steps further, removing the concept of a face and existing in the grainy “found footage” realm of popular jump scare entertainments.  He is a crowd sourced creation born out of the fears of a disenfranchised population, exhibited not through centralized forms of media access, but through the open distribution channel of popular internet culture.      

Alien Autopsy

Tracing the image even further back, one can't help but think of another creation of folk mythology.  The alien grey reached the height of its popular appeal during the late nineties mini craze of alien conspiracy and government cover ups.  It too, then, is a reflection of a fear of anonymous, all controlling forces beyond our control.  And it too has no single creator, emerging out of the popular consciousness as less a character than a personified aspect of cultural fear.  Though both the greys and Slenderman find themselves eventually mined for eventual profit, (and, as the greys prove, over exposure leads to the eventual inability to separate use from self conscious parody) their existence as group creations demonstrates a potential way for intellectual property to exist outside of the limitations of ownership.  

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

You're incorrect about this actually. Slender Man is copyrighted: http://cocatalog.loc.gov/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?v1=1&ti=1,1&Search_Arg=slender%20man&Search_Code=TALL&CNT=25&PID=48ISTt5HBAECYOs5XZM6mg4Qu&SEQ=20130822164359&SID=1

Anonymous said...

No, that is the copyright filing for the original photomanipulations and, I assume, the original text blurbs that went with them. That is a very different thing than owning a copyrightable character. Remember, copyright is not trademark law. In general copyright does not protect ideas (spooky man in a suit, a faceless man) only explicit expressions of an idea. You cannot copyright a name for instance. The only thing that Victor would be able to sue for would be violating a character copyright and establishing a copyrightable character is difficult. You have to establish that a collection of traits is a character by demonstration that it is deliniated enough for protection.
In reality, Victor Surge has three elements to the Slender Man 'character'. Suit, 'skinny', and takes children. I think that any court would laugh this right out. Sam Spade, one of the most famous detectives in literature, isn't even considered enough of a character to be ocpyrightable. The courts have ruled time and again that only specificity protects a character and to infringe you have to lift a character whole cloth, character archtypes are not protected. This is why character copyright is usually only won by very famous or valuable characters with lots of history/story behind them. That's the only thing that makes them unique enough to be protected.

Tall guy that takes children isn't anywhere near specific enough for a character copyright. Remember that even the faceless thing isn't Surges, that was mainly Marble Hornets.

The only thing that Surge has the copyright on is the original pictures and the original text he wrote, that's it. Hell, the Marble Hornets guys have more chance of suing most people than Surge does.

Also I really wonder if the original images Surge used were under copyright, that would add a level of irony to Surge trying to take down anything Slendermany.

Anonymous said...

Slender man is real and he stole the children.