Viacom's Warpath

E-mail from Willard Uncapher to Jeff Rhind


I thought you might be interested in this update of some material I answered to Dwight Silverman over at the Houston Chronicle. I have also added the final re-edited letter I sent to Viacom. Good luck. Um, I don't think the boycott idea would work too well- who really gets hurt. But the more the press begins to pick up on the story of Viacom looking so stupid, with Viacom so completely missing the point of the Net and of the creative engagment of people with the show, the more Viacom will be sorry they got into this. As I said, they shold be paying you guys for publicy, not trying to shut you down. Willard

Date: Sat, 21 Dec 1996 04:31:52 -0600
To: Dwight Silverman
From: Willard Uncapher
Subject: A virtual interview on virtual property? <Was Re: trek sites>
X-Attachments: C:\Outline\Outgoing\Outgoing- Politics\Viacom Letter Respelled.doc;

At 12:48 PM 12/20/96, Dwight Silverman inquired:
>Hi. I'm the computer writer at the Houston Chronicle, and I'm
>working on a story on Viacom's bigfoot letters to Star Trek fan
>sites on the Web. I understand you've been discussing this with
>your classes at UT, and I'd like to hear your thoughts for my
>story. Please give me a call at the voice number below. I've also
>left a similar message on your office voice mail. Thanks.

Hehe, heh. I missed your call from the Chronicle. I was at the University handing in grades today. I was scheduled (automatically by the University) to give my final exam on the last possible slot it seems on the Tuesday before Christmas, with me and my TA having to get all the grading done and organized by Friday, today.

You can certainly call me apropos Viacom or whatever, although I am not sure what of your time constraints would be for a Saturday print. You have my permission to quote *any* of the material below in an article for the Houston Chronicle (within the guidelines set up for newspapers) as if we had had a voice conversion together. You can still talk to me on the phone, or confirm anything I said here by voice if you wish.

Briefly, from my side, as a teacher, you must understand that I love a story like this one: of Viacom closing down- or severely damaging- their own fan's sites. As an university instructor, however, it is not my place to take one side or another as to the merits of any of the arguments here- I'll let my students make up their minds. My role is to facilitate analysis, to provide background, and an overview. So if one of my students thinks that Viacom's position is very on target, then I clearly am there to help and encourage their thinking as well!

It's just that this is one of those cases that is just too much to be believed. From a distance, Viacom's actions seem so, well, reasonable. Here is a company that owns the rights, the intellectual and performance rights to a show that took a lot of time, money, and effort to produce. A unique series of shows, with a unique, devoted audience, and it would appear that their 'property' is being lifted by some 'para-sites,' as I would call them, sites that are making use of copyrighted material for their 'own' benefit.

Some might think, of course, Viacom has every right, and I expect this would be the position that some students would take up. So as a teacher, this is a great situation, a complete set up! Because when one *then* asks, where does the value of their show come from... things suddenly become more complicated. The value of the concept of Star Trek lies not in owning a particular picture, per se, but in the imaginative engagement that its 'viewers,' its audience have with the show. The series provides a kind of language with which people can express all kinds of interesting things about themselves, about society, and about the future. It is a language meant to be used. Its most devoted viewers 'live' Star Trek, at least some of time.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Pa in Philadelphia, a folklorist there, I think it was Jane Radway, did an extended study of a women's group that had newsletters and an entire fantasy culture around Star Trek- to the extent that there would be questions about, say Kirk's sexuality. The language of the group was Star Trek, but the group functioned as a group, with inside jokes, newcomers, and so on. These women's groups produced all kinds of 'fanzines' and from the perspective of Viacom, this production might have been bothersome since to them it might be compromising the 'sanctity' and identity of their characters by asking about Kirk's sexuality and whether Spock was gay. But for the bean counters at Viacom, this is all still great because these people are still going out there and buying ('consuming') Star Trek memorabilia, still going to the shows, still there as 'eyes' for an advertiser's count of who is watching the Star Trek series, still generating interest in the show! What Radway argued is that what mattered here was the 'discursive community,' that there was a community debating the meaning of the show, that meaning mattered, and that this meaning engaged people, interested people, and was part of what gave people pleasure. One of the reasons that Shakespeare still 'matters' on an everyday level, is that people can use his situations and his languages as a kind of language of their own.

Viacom is arguing that they own the 'language' of such a group. And in a sense they do, but what makes it so interesting is that it is not Viacom, nor its show, nor its actors, nor its set designers that are bringing this *language* to life. *They* merely created a vocabulary. It's the *audience* that brought the show to life. So what we find here is that Viacom owns something that is part of a *process,* an imaginative project. What Viacom/Paramount should be doing is *encouraging* their fans to *be* fans, to keep up interest in the show, to have a fun time with it, to go to even unsuccessful screen versions of Star Trek movies 10 or more times because they, the audience, *like* the world. Viacom should be encouraging the fans to get their friends to come to movies, and to buy Star Trek (registered trademark) projects! So for Viacom/Paramount to attempt to squelch the creative imaginings of their fans by making sure that they eliminating anything that might be construed as Viacom material or property from the para-site has got to be one of the most short-sighted, looney toons corporate strategies I have ever heard of!

And you can see the attraction this case would have for a teacher of media history and new communication technologies! This case demonstrates such a profound ignorance of what intellectual property even is, and how it is used- that it's staggering! Intellectual property is valuable not because it is 'owned' in the same sense that one owns a car, but because it has a *use* value, a value that appears, that manifests itself in using it! Now as a writer, researcher, and image maker, I have a stake in intellectual property, as will my students. I don't want people to take my images and claim that they made them, or start making lots of money off of my creative work. But that's what's so interesting. In the domain where Viacom is exercising its legal restraint, there is no particular money to be made! It is the domain of publicity, for the most part.

I certainly think it is fair if when Viacom/Paramount sees one of these sites making money off of their images, say by selling advertising on their Web site based on the promise by that site to have original Star Trek material- I think is it is fair for them to negotiate a deal, vis-a-vis the profits, and the profits alone. Even still, the deal should be relatively encouraging to the money making sie, since the product is still usually to a great extent the creative product of a Trekie. It is in Viacom/Paramount interest to be encouraging people to do things with their show. Viacom should not gouge a site, and the truth is that it might well be worth more to Viacom to leave this kind of site alone with a little advertising, than to not have anything at all. As I recently said in my letter to Viacom, do they really think they are going to make that much by charging say $5, or $.05 for a digitized still from one of their movies! It's not simply the image that should be important to them, but the publicity of the image, the fact that it can generate this interest!

So this case is a case made in heaven for a class on media history and the theory of intellectual property. Viacom's action seems so reasonable... and yet to completely idiotic as not to be believed!

What's more, as I point out in the letter, Viacom's actions shows a profound ignorance of mass media theory, and incredible short shortsightedness as to what is happening in cyberspace. It seems to be another case of a traditional mass media, earth bound entity trying to 'cash in' on the Internet, while profoundly misunderstanding what is happening there, and what is going to be happening there in the next 20 and the next 200 years! As I stated in my letter, media scholars and sociologist like Elihu Katz, Robert K Merton, and Paul Lazarsfeld found that there needs to be a bridge between 'mass media culture' and 'inter-personal culture.' These scholars are founders in the field of media research, names to conjure with, and names that anyone at Viacom who had studied media theory must have come across. The idea is that content and interest in media enters the live of an audience not as material injected like a 'syringe' into a waiting body, but as part of a multi-stepped process. Certainly many advertiser's know and work with this concept. The point is not just to make one's ads memorable, but to get the attention of someone in the house who might 'reformulate' the content into a context more suited for a particular home. Katz, Merton, and Lazarsfeld in the 1950s called this a two step process, suggesting the rather than sitting by passively listening and watching political messages (step one), the content tends to get discussed and reformulated in the contexts of the family (step two). In a way, Viacom has declared war on the local opinion leaders, on the kind of people who reformulate the meaning of the show to meet local context!

Viacom/Paramount is failing to see or understand what is happening in cyberspace. For they and their lawyers, it must be complete folly that people like you or myself, as well as more established writers would put (some of) our intellectual property online 'for free.' They must think this is complete foolishness. Why give away something for free that we have worked so hard to produce? Why? In part because you and I know the importance of publicity (although we may for personal reasons want certain things out in the public domain for free). That is, I will put some of my own writings on the decentralization and globalization of markets, education, community, government, and infrastructures out on the net for free, so that at a later point when someone wants to hire someone to assess the prospects of some venture, or need to how to study it, they know to come to me, or to you! Viacom must be completely perplexed at the virtual economy of the Internet, and the way it interfaces with real opportunities to make money!

What's more, Viacom seems unable to grasp that 'opinion leaders' are moving online, that they are no longer simply sitting in front of a club, pub, office, or television set making comments about some show or event. As the technology to create spaces in virtual bars and virtual worlds gets better, with VRML2, OnLive Traveller, World's Inc. ActiveVision-Alphaworld and its clones, Sony's Community Place, Fujitsu-CompuServe's World's Away-Habitat and so on evolve, people will bring virtual 'trading cards' with them, in essence 'copies' of things to show around the bar. Viacom is trying to make sure that no direct copyrighted material is taken into one of these virtual bars. And this will become much more a problem for companies like Viacom, or Fox as they tried to shut down Millennium fan sites as they try to censor what goes on in the discussions and exchanges that go on. After all, it will be there that interest in series like those of Star Trek are even developed. I missed the first half of the first year of Babylon 5, a tightly written, linear series. But I was very impressed by the acting, conceptions, and writing of what I saw. So I went to a web site,, and found out about what I had missed, and then could watch the show. This was not an official site- even though there now is one- but a parasite that both feeds from and into the show. Indeed, as I understand it, the producers of Babylon 5 were so appreciative of the role of the Web site, that the producer/writer J. Michael Straczynski named a 'battle cruiser' the Hyperion in recognition of the Web site, rather than the other way around.

So you would think that a multi-billion dollar company, with billions invested in 'intellectual property' would understand what is happening to intellectual property, and how to best use it to their advantage? And the answer is that they might not know, might not see it! I remember when one of the Bell companies was spending a billion to consolidate control of a section of the 'net based on the expect ion that because of their size and history they would make a lot more by 'controlling' the net. I told my class that just because a company has a billion to spend doesn't mean it doesn't have a billion to lose. The Bell company had profoundly misunderstood the nature of 'bypass,' that if you erect a toll both one place on the net, people will find other pathways or other competitors willing to give it away more cheaply. Sear's/HR Block/IBM's Prodigy was another example of 'do it alone' hubris of not seeing that the world has changed and one doesn't control the Networked world the way one did the more material ones. So in the case of Viacom, here is a company so well placed to reap the benefits of the Net- and what do they do- do their best to shoot themselves in the foot- based on short term greed, short term profits, and short term vision. Indeed, they would be appearing to try to mobilize the Net, or at least their fans on the Net, against them!

So, from the perspective of a university teacher, this is great material- how a corporate strategy that seems so reasonable could end up becoming so obviously idiotic to anyone who thinks about it. Lots of classroom discussion to be drawn from this idiocy. From the perspective of the fans however, this is a sad day, and a worrisome- when the parent company of the show they have loves demonstrates that it does not understand them, or what they have been doing for so many years.

Willard Uncapher/Univ. of Texas at Austin.

ps. I include the updated version of the letter I send the chair/ceo of Viacom in MS-Word6/7 format. And you have my permission to quote anything in either letter for your article (within the normal authorial quidelines of the Houston Chronicle, whatever they may be).

[Both letters posted with the permission of Willard Uncapher.]
Last modified on December 21, 1996.