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Legal Eye: On things

It figures that a television series that thinks nothing of routinely killing the same character over and over would have a novel approach to making its characters available on the Internet....
September 1, 1998

It figures that a television series that thinks nothing of routinely killing the same character over and over would have a novel approach to making its characters available on the Internet.

Comedy Central is distributing on the Web multimedia images of the characters from the popular series South Park, including the ever-dying Kenny. It says allowing fans to collect the images-called South Park ‘Things’-both on- and off-line will help it enforce its copyright in the images.

On the surface, giving away the images doesn’t seem like the most effective way to enforce copyright, which gives the copyright holder the exclusive right to make copies of the protected material. It has traditionally been used to control the use and distribution of the material by other people.

But there has always been some tension between the traditional view of copyright and the Internet philosophy that everyone should have the right to use and copy material freely.

When fans have used unauthorized material on their Web pages, such as photographs of celebrities, cartoons, art, logos or video or sound clips from TV shows and movies, the response has often been a ‘cease and desist’ letter from the businesses that own rights in the material, or their lawyers, demanding that the offending material be removed, and threatening legal action if it is not. Creators of Web pages for The Simpsons, Melrose Place, Millennium, the Cyber Graceland Tour and Star Trek, among others, have received such letters.

(Usually, the Web page creators comply because they don’t have the financial or legal resources to fight back. They do, however, sometimes retaliate by replacing the allegedly infringing material with a copy of the letter and their view of the dispute.)

Contrast this with Comedy Central’s statement that it expects the show’s fans to use the Things on the thousands of Web sites dedicated to the series. Looked at closely, though, this may not be so much a reflection of the philosophy that copyright protection does not belong on the Internet, as it is a recognition of the marketing potential of that medium.

Each South Park Thing will be embedded with the Comedy Central URL, and will contain ads for the show itself. It means that every Thing will promote both Comedy Central and the show itself.

This approach may not stop all unauthorized copying, but Comedy Central appears willing to take the risk. If you can’t beat them, you might as well join them-and get some free promotion while you’re at it.

(This article contains general comments only. It is not intended to be exhaustive and should not be considered as advice on any particular situation.)

Sandra Richmond is a member of the KNOWlaw Group of the Toronto law firm of McMillan Binch

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