Intellectual Property Attorney

Developing an Intellectual Property Enforcement Strategy (Part I of V) – Balancing Fan-Engagement with Intellectual Property Protection

Customer engagement and satisfaction is critical to the development of a successful business. As VIRGIN® brand founder Richard Branson once said, “[t]o succeed in business you need to be original, but you also need to understand what your customers want.” Actively engaging customers is one, if not the, most valuable ways of understanding “what your customers want.”

Customer engagement is, perhaps, most important for businesses in the fast-moving mass media and entertainment industries which directly cater to the wants of customers in a unique way. Such businesses develop and market content, characters and stories through various platforms including print, broadcast and digital media. Such ventures range in size from multi-billion dollar brand empires like the Walt Disney Company to new authors hoping to write the next big children’s book series.

In an effort to engage with fans, mass media and entertainment ventures are taking an increasingly active role in coordinating and collaborating with traditionally “fan-driven” projects. For example, the San Diego Comic-Con International (often simply known as “Comic-Con”) started as a small fan-driven event with less than 150 participants in 1970. Comic-Con has since grown to annually attract over 100,000 fans and prominently feature sponsorship and interaction from major corporate mass media and entertainment companies including Amazon, HBO, NBC, AMC, Netflix, Marvel, DC Comics, and Warner Brothers. In fact, Comic-Con is now so large that the annual regional economic impact of the event is estimated at over $160 million.

While such fan-engagement can be a tremendous asset to mass media and entertainment ventures, it can also pose delicate challenges. For example, what should an author do if she discovers that a fan has posted a chapter of “fan fiction” online? Or what if a comic book company discovers that a group of fans are selling homemade costumes as worn by one of the company’s characters. Should the company take any action?

One striking, real world example of the difficulties of what might be called fan “over engagement” comes from the issues raised by the amateur fan film “Axanar” which was based off of the STAR TREK® characters. Axanar Productions reportedly raised $1 million through crowdfunding to create a 90-minute film based on the STAR TREK® universe before becoming embroiled in a lawsuit with Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios (which own the STAR TREK® franchise).

Presumably, Paramount and CBS were understandably especially concerned by the length and budget of the envisioned film. However, many fans objected to what they perceived as a harsh crackdown against fellow fans. In fact, even J. J. Abrams (who directed the 2009 movie “Star Trek” and the 2013 movie “Star Trek Into Darkness”) reportedly said that this lawsuit was “not the appropriate way to deal with the fans.”

This raises a further difficulty. Not only is intellectual property enforcement expensive in and of itself, but enforcement can also create “blowback” from within the fan community. The decision to “shut down” a well-meaning fan can thus be both expensive and have a chilling effect on the engagement and monetization of the entire fan base.

As technology and crowd-funding makes it easier to create and distribute fan-created content, these challenges will become more common for intellectual property owners. This series of articles explores how intellectual property owners can take steps to balance protecting their intellectual property with encouraging fan engagement.

Grimes LLC has developed a reputation as a world leader in successfully helping clients build, protect and monetize intellectual property. If your company wants to balance intellectual property protection with fan engagement, call us today for a free consultation.

Click here to explore Article II in this series: “Articulating an Intellectual Property Enforcement Strategy.”

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