I haven’t blogged anything for a while, so here’s something just to get me back on track… A little bit on video weirdness and fan fiction weirdness.

Recently, there’s been some rumbling about free standards on the Web. Commercial software providers are pushing for H.264 as the HTML 5 video standard. The problem is that H.264 (also known as MPEG-4 Advanced Video Codec, the codec that’s used in Blu-Ray discs and HD video cameras too) is heavily patented, while Web standards have traditionally been free to use; simply put, you don’t have to pay anything to anyone to implement a Web browser. There is a free-to-use video standard called Theora that isn’t quite as advanced as H.264; people are also pushing Google to open up a video codec called VP8, which would be a contender to H.264.

There’s a big problem that the H.264 proponents frequently ignore: As the Free Software Foundation points out, H.264 licences only allow the H.264 licenced software to be used for the “personal and non-commercial use”. If you want to use it for commercial purposes, you supposedly need to pay more. No, this is not included in the price of most H.264 applications; even Final Cut Pro, Apple’s flagship video editor software, is only licenced for “personal and non-commercial” H.264 use. People probably frequently ignore this little condition. People could get bitten in the butt pretty severely in the future. (A decade ago, people said “who cares - MP3 is free!”… and the next month, hardware manufacturers were paying MP3 licence fees.)

But I’m not writing this to whine about H.264 specifically. I’m writing this to whine about the “personal and non-commercial use”.

I’ve seen an incredible amount of drama in fan fiction circles, even when I don’t even read fan fiction. I get it; people like TV series and video games and whatnot a lot, and then enter into pointless squabbles over whose fan character is the best. Then they enter into even more pointless squabbles over who has the right to use which fan character.

They all forget one big thing: they’re guests in the house. They don’t have the rights to their fan characters. The real owners of the franchises own the rights.

This is the big trap that people wander into when they venture in the land of “personal and non-commercial use”. There’s always a big threat hanging above their heads: someone else has the right to say that this won’t do.

I’ve seen people build entire imaginary media empires around Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokémon. These imaginary media empires exist because Sega and Nintendo allow them to exist; if they didn’t, they’d be crushed.

It is my opinion that fan fiction is a similar sort of trap as the H.264 licence situation. People find something awesome. They pretend to themselves that there’s a niche here that they’re allowed to use for their own good. What’s really happening is that they’re not really aware of who is in the full rights to stomp them.

Personally, I’ve always felt uneasy when I’ve used software that is only intended for “personal and non-commercial use”. On the other hand, free and open source software has always felt like the right choice for me, because it won’t try to dictate how the hell am I supposed to actually use the software. Software that says it’s only for “personal and non-commercial use” is saying “You’re not a professional. You’re not creative. What you create with this software is insignificant. What you create with this software will always remain unprofitable, because we say so. You are a normal consumer, and normal consumers don’t create. Normal consumers are not allowed to be creative in any way.”

Note that I’m not saying that true art is always commercially profitable, or even the inverse case that the true art should always be non-profit. What I’m saying is that true art shouldn’t be constrained by that sort of thing. Artists create something, and they shouldn’t need to be concerned whether or not the artwork is, one day, going to make money. That sort of thing puts limits to one’s creativity. What would you say if you created artwork for non-profit purposes, and when this work would be sold after the eventual thunderous posthumous recognition, the first thing the buyer would see would be the software vendor asking for money?

It’s same sort of thing with fan fiction. “You’re a guest. You’re allowed to create fan fiction because it’s nice. But you’re destined to always be derivative. You’re not the Creator. You’re the Fan. The Fans are not really creative, they’re just repeating what the Creator did.”

And what I’m trying to say is this: Normal consumers are allowed to be creative. You are allowed to be creative. Creativity is everyone’s right. Software licences that tell you that you’re not allowed to use a piece of software to express your creativity and reap all of the potential benefits from it.

Similarly, I don’t want people to create Avarthrel “fan fiction”. I want people to create their own works based on Avarthrel. I don’t want people to just be “fans” who create works in my shadow; I want people to contribute in their own way. If you are creating an epic fantasy work and suddenly realise “damn it, I don’t want to create an Avarthrel-based work after all, I’m a great author on my own merits and want to create something original instead”, that’s your right and I’m willing to accept that too - I’m not that attached to my very own media franchise cashcow thing.

The latter is, of course, just academic because I don’t have actual fans who would be doing this. All I’m saying is that if you create fan works, then bloody heck, there’s nothing stopping you from creating something actually original. It could be a liberating experience. Try it!