NBC's Community and Open Source Collaboration

Curator's Note

NBC's Community occupies a peculiar space in broadcast television—it boasts a tech-savvy, fiercely dedicated fan base, but the show lives under the constant threat of cancellation because many of its viewers watch online, flying under the Nielson radar. But having dedicated viewers belonging to this particular demographic has its benefits.

After one episode in which the show’s characters play an old school 8-bit game, a few fans, perhaps aware of NBC's looming decision to renew or cancel, decided to bring it to life.  Pulling the graphics, structure, and mechanics of the game—itself a composite of 80s-era console games—the fans built a prototype and posted it online for others to play with and tweak.

In the past, a company like NBC would have taken the game down with the threat of litigation, angering and alienating fans.  Thankfully, it seems they’ve given their tacit consent—for the time being.  What’s most fascinating to see is what happens when the copyright clamps are removed and fans are free to participate in a derivative creativity that skirts intellectual property rights, usually for non-monetary purposes.

I think there's a pattern here that’s worth theorizing. This is a mode of creativity facilitated by networked collaboration; a creativity that openly acknowledges and credits its source material; and a creativity that encourages subsequent derivations—something that I’ve taken to calling "disruptive textuality."

But that’s not the end of the story.  I use the term “disruptive,” because it doesn’t begin with fidelity and end with minor alterations—sooner or later, a transformation will occur, with each iteration becoming wilder than the previous.  The Community game is just one example—there’s call for “forking” on the homepage and you can keep track of branches on Github—but I wonder what will happen when NBC realizes the game is diverging from "canon," taking a life of its own, perhaps in ways it doesn’t necessarily find agreeable.  Will they exercise their copyright options then?




Thanks for your post! While I don't follow Community (though it keeps coming up at IMR), I'm curious about the possibilities for directed application of 'disruptive textuality'. In the context you've described, the modality eventually leads to an overarching transmogification, eventualy challenging its own origins. Ian Bogost, co-creator of Persuasive Games, has argued that games employ a procedural rhetoric that focuses on models, effectively making arguments about how things work at an enacted (rather than abstracted) level.  Could your idea and Bogost's intersect, at some point, to characterize systemic interactions within the fan-based game you describe, as well as between the game, its users, and NBC's productions? More generally, how do you think ideas like disruptive textuality and procedural rhetoric might challenge the capacity of intellectual property law to make ownership claims at a distance from a 'product'? In other words, if the game you describe is enacted to the point of being self-undermining (in some sense), then in what ways might IP, itself, be forced to change to accommodate these new patterns of interaction, or do you think the copyright vanguard will attempt to mobilize current notions of IP until traditional media are obsolete? 

There was a similar conversation to this one a while back at the Transformers Wiki, about what rights the editors of a wiki dedicated to a popular licensed franchise have vis-a-vis the owners of the property.  One user compared it to a sort of "digital sharecropping" - the fans generate the content, but the rights holder can ultimately do with the content whatever they will.  (this is particularly pertinent with Transformers, as it's fairly well known that official creators working on the toys, cartoons, comics, etc. use the fan-curated wiki as a reference guide). 

There's the possibility of a shared understanding that this is a fan creation meant as a tribute, as opposed to an attempt to undermine or infringe.  (as far as I know, Hasbro, the owners of Transformers, have no official position on the wiki one way or another, although it has traditionally been accepted as a "fan site" alongside those that focus on toy news, media reviews, etc.) 

I would imagine the end result of fan mutation of controlled content would depend greatly on the content owner and their attitude towards the content.  I'm thinking here of Archie Comics, who are notoriously protective of their characters' wholesome image.  In contrast, does NBC care that much about a show that honestly, they will likely cancel after this season?  

I'm not familiar with Persuasive Games, but I'm curious to read how community-generated (the group, not the show) games might rhetorically diverge from what has been established, which is basically one of, although not all, the effects of a disruptive textuality.  In terms of extant intellectual property laws, the problem is that this kind of creativity isn't recognized or particularly valued in both cultural and economic terms, which is why it exists in a perpetual state of vulnerability.  Part of the point of my point is that there is value in those kinds of divergences that might actively undermine or write against the "original."

It's interesting to me that one of the prime examples of nerd-geek fan culture and fan support saving a show was also an NBC show --  original Star Trek.   It's also the first (preserved) arena of slash / fan fiction.  There's canon trek and spin off Trek.  Not that I'm arguing that NBC is a locus or anything...


Thanks for this really interesting piece, David.

To me this kind if creative activity shows that creative process is changing and ideas of ownership, plagiarism and copyright are being challenged in the digital world.

The old school approach (characterised by corporations such as NBC threatening litigation in order to protect their creative IP) is failing. Two reasons this approach doesn’t work are: 1) it has become increasingly difficult to shut this stuff down, and 2) in shutting it down, the corporations only succeed in alienating their audiences.

It’s interesting to think about why litigation alienates audiences (apart from the obvious). It is at least in part because punters like to feel a degree of ownership of the texts they engage with. The Community game developers have created a type of fan fiction, and as with literary fan fiction, the process of creating fan fiction facilitates a deeper engagement with the text (in this case, the TV show): the fan is taking part in a creative process, not just passively reading/listening/watching.

The digital-world approach to ideas of IP ownership can be seen as a ‘new school’: these publishers are often independent artists or self-publishers. They take an alternative view to IP which is based on creative commons ideas where creative work is uploaded with the explicit purpose of being shared and reworked or remixed by other artists.  Australian poet Deb Matthews-Zott nicely articulates the notion of copyright as restrictive and counter-productive to the creative process in her article "Creative Licences and CCMixter" in the Cordite Poetry Review. Deb’s ideas in this article are a productive and insightful way to look at the inevitable changes that are occurring within IP.

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