How Subjective is Ownership of an Idea?

In case you missed it Tony Moore recently sued Robert Kirkman over Walking Dead, and it stirred up all kinds of comments and reactions. Most notably an exchange on Twitter between Rick Remender and Cory Walker where they argued if designing characters is enough to constitute ownership. Walker collaborated with Remender on Strange Girl, an Image series from 2005. The twist is that Walker quit the project before the first issue was even fully conceived, and Eric Nguyen replaced him and provided art for all 18 issues of the comic. Walker’s contribution boils down to character designs and sketches. This exchange on Twitter is certainly not about to explode into another lawsuit, but it raises an interesting question, just what defines ownership of an idea?

Should Walker receive credit for being the first to put pencil to paper and transforming Remender’s words into images, or does all the credit go to Eric Nguyen, who did the hard work of illustrating 18 issues? For that matter how much credit should go to the artist, over the say the writer. To take this even a step further, how much credit goes to whatever influenced the creators in the first place. I’m sure many have found themselves reading stories, only to find many or few elements borrowed from elsewhere. What then even constitutes a new idea? Is it turtles all the way down?

To illustrate how ambiguous and subjective ownership of an idea can be, consider the recent Siegel-Superman-DC lawsuit. A key part of that ruling is that the Siegel Estate owns the contents of Action Comics #1 and #4, and DC owns everything else that’s been created since. Simple enough, except it creates an artificial divide. What DC owns depends on what the Siegel Estate owns, and what the Siegel Estate owns has been changed over time because of DC’s additions. So then what matters more? The original idea, or what’s been done since? How important are the creators who’ve worked with these ideas and have done all the adding?

For instance. where do we draw the line between Rorshach and the Question? Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen is a drastic reinterpretation of a bunch of Charlton characters that DC Comics previously acquired. What Moore and Gibbon’s did with these characters is definitely original, but is it enough to transform their creation into something new? I think most would agree that it is, but not all, and again I ask, where do you draw the line? Just how subjective is ownership of an idea? Does the origin matter more than what is done with it?

Does The Fifth Element seem like a better movie to someone who has not read Jodorowsky and Moebius’s Incal? Does knowing about the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs devalue the Joker?

It shouldn’t, each new creation, despite what it may borrow, can stand on its own and offer something new. If not, then there couldn’t be such a thing as originality, because to some degree everything borrows something from somewhere. The issue comes down to credit. Who gets credit for what, and when? And this is what can be so subjective. To some the hard work that goes into making a project possible counts more, to others the inception. Does the writer who dreams up the world count more than the artist who makes it happen? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the relationship between those two creators, and even where the writer does most of the leg work they’re still not holding the pencil. Though it could be argued that there’s little credit to be given for holding a pencil if all you’re doing is tracing.

Sigh… and so on. Ideas have a way of moving about freely and evolving no matter who created them in the first place. In a legal sense a contract can render all moot, not that this has ever stopped things like fan fiction. But at a philosophical level it gets notably more complicated. Ego factors into it, as do the particulars of any situation and the point of view of the participants; and when all is said and done the truth is probably more complex than imagined. Let’s not forget that Superman owes a little to characters like Samson and Hercules.

Creators should be rewarded for their creation. I am not contesting this, but perhaps we should be more careful in making this an absolute determination, and consider the complexities that go into any creation. No one dreams up anything in a void. There are many influences and contributors, and these should not be casually dismissed.

EDIT: Just came across a recent post by Ty Templeton on his blog, and well it couldn’t illustrate my point better:

About: Alex Lupp

Alex is the guy that runs and edits this blog. He’s been reading comics for as long as he’s been able to read, and somewhere along the way started forming opinions that extended beyond just Batman is cool, or Spider-Man is awesome, and more importantly decided to share these. Lately, he’s been getting a little burned out on mainstream comics, but has found solace in the indie world. There’s also his inhuman love of heavy metal, but we do not speak of that.

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