Zap! Pow! Bam! A New Genre, Copyright Comics

Those antic law professors who gave us Bound by Law – a glorious superhero-comic treatment of the fair use doctrine in filmmaking -- are at it again!  Forget DC Comics.  I want my IP Comics!  Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins are apparently out to build a franchise by translating the arcane monstrosities of copyright law into clever, hilarious and downright educational comic books. 

Their latest offering, due out in the spring or summer of 2011, is Theft!  A History of Music -- Musical Borrowing from Plato to Hip-Hop. Aoki, a professor of law at the UC-Davis School of Law, is the graphic artist for the comic book.  Boyle and Jenkins  -- both professors at Duke Law School – researched, wrote and designed it.  Boyle is the former Chairman of Creative Commons and co-founder of its spinoff project, Science Commons.  Jenkins heads the Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

Most of us who care about copyright and culture have been forced to wade through endless, often-boring law review articles to retrieve some nugget of insight that only copyright insiders really care about.  Yet, copyright law presumes to govern the hydraulics of creativity and culture, so why shouldn’t everyone have access to how the law is messing with us?  Enter IP Comics. 

Aoki, Boyle and Jenkins blow down the conventions of academic protocol and artistic genre by translating their lecture-hall pontificating into highly entertaining and memorable comic-strip panels.  Who knew that the history of music and copyright law could be so effectively told through the medium of superhero graphics, pop-culture references, Simpsons-like sight gags and postmodern one-liners?

Jenkins, who gave a lecture this fall on Theft!  A History of Music, describes the topic this way:

We are in the midst of the music wars.  Each side tells its story in black and white. On one side, the story is of a generation of lawbreakers, pirating or remixing music without authorization, indifferent to artists’ needs. On the other side, we hear about record companies resorting to the law to prop up an obsolete business model, while trying to criminalize new forms of creativity and access enabled by technology.

These clashes are presented as a creature of the digital age.  But in fact they are not new battles – they are nearly as old as music itself.  Plato argued that mixing musical modes should be banned by the state.  The Holy Roman Empire tried to use notation – a new "technology" at the time – to force orthodoxy on religious music, and ironically gave composers a tool for disruptive innovation in the process.  In the Renaissance, music publishers were actually granted monopolies over printing any music, to support their new printing technologies. Classical composers borrowed routinely in ways that would almost certainly be illegal today.  And when we turn to the history of rock music, we find one huge mashup – crossing lines of genre, class, and especially race.  Would jazz and soul have been illegal if they had been developed under today's copyright laws?  What can history teach us about today's music wars?  (A webcast of Jenkins’ one-hour lecture can be viewed here.)

From Theft!  A History of Music.

I haven’t seen the new comic book yet, but the few samples from Jenkins’ lecture and Jamie Boyle’s “Public Domain” website are captivating.  Ah, to be granted the guilty pleasure of reading comic books while being edified and instructed about history, culture and copyright law!

For those of you who can’t wait for Theft!, I recommend Keith Aoki’s just-published law review article, which consists entirely of comic-strip panels.  “Pictures Within Pictures,” a 14-page “article” in the December 2010 issue of Ohio Northern University Law Review (volume 36) makes some astute points about the derivative nature of creativity (i.e., “pictures within pictures”) while cleverly serving as a promotional teaser for the new book.  Talk about genre-bending! 

For the record, the comic strip is officially known as UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Research Paper 235, and can be downloaded without charge from The Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1726137 http://ssrn.com/abstract=1726137.  The image below comes from the article. 

Does Theft!  have the makings of a crossover hit?  Let’s just say it would be a mighty wide chasm (from legal scholarship to superhero comics -- what next, a movie deal?) for anyone to cross over.  It almost doesn’t matter.  You gotta admire the sheer audacity and wit of the whole enterprise.  If only more education could aspire to this sort of bravado.