Friday, February 01, 2008

Copying as transformation

Henry Lowood, Found Technology: Players as Innovators in the Making of Machinima, in Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected (Tara McPherson ed., 2008) (The John D. and Catherine T.MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning)

Given that courts have occasionally suggested that, for fair use purposes, the line between transformative and nontransformative uses is whether an unauthorized use brings out and emphasizes or exaggerates some characteristic that was already in the original text, I was especially interested in Lowood’s description of a machinima movie set in World of Warcraft that told a Romeo-and-Juliet story about the love between a troll and a human.

The reason this story “specifically drew attention to issues of creative ownership of the story world” was that the programmers had intended trolls and humans to be engaged in “relentless and unremitting conflict.” Indeed, they had implemented this intention by making it impossible for trolls and humans to communicate in-game. Trolls and humans could not chat together; speech by one group was garbled by the game into gibberish instead of presented to the other group; and the software even filtered out “subversive attempts to communicate by embedding text in descriptive gestures, known as ‘emotes.’”

Such extremes of denial can be expected to produce resistance. The story of forbidden love – and the massive collaboration between troll and human players required to film the movie – showed that the players had a different view of the inevitability of conflict. As the credits said, “Even without leet speak you cannot take away our love!”

At the same time, the film was made using only materials that the game made available. Pope, the creator, simulated sexual situations “through character positions and camera angles in the video.” He was incapable of changing the server-based program. It was thus in one sense inarguable that
as Pope argued with a wink, … he had merely showed ‘what WoW’s pixels imply :).’ Even sexual imagery, therefore, was nothing more than a rearrangement of what Blizzard’s artists had drawn, or more accurately, what its game engine generated during gameplay. Rather than asserting his right to subvert the game’s content, Pope reasoned that he had in fact not created anything on the screen, merely captured it.
So this film was deeply transformative – bringing out what always existed in potential in the original – by being pure reuse.


Bruce Boyden said...

This is a fascinating account, but I'm not sure I get the reference to "pure reuse" or "copying as transformation." If I'm understanding correctly, Pope told a story using WOW that does not otherwise occur in the course of the game, using "editing, character positioning, and carefully chosen camera angles" as well as "dozens of player-actors, choreographed actions and spell effects, cleverly chosen locations, and immense preproduction planning." In other words, WOW was a medium, but the plot and character development was Pope's. This doesn't strike me as a case of copying itself being transformative -- it's reuse and rearrangement of copyrightable elements to tell a new story, which is standard old transformation, I think. Sure, the story was potentially in the game somehow -- but only in the same way that an elephant is in a block of marble, or a novel is in a dictionary.

RT said...

Bruce, to me the difference is that the block of marble doesn't say "no elephants allowed" -- WoW was not a storyless void before the machinima creators and players showed up. Rather, the official narrative was one of unending war between trolls and humans, enforced by technical barriers to communication by potential peacemakers and revision of the code when players initially figured out workarounds. It was the rigidness of that narrative that the love story fought against, using tools already available in the program.