Collisions at the Corner of Art and Commerce

From the 'Miscellaneous File' - An executive who gets it....

Saturday, December 27, 2008

From the 039Miscellaneous File039 - An executive who gets it
There's a local weekly rag called The Portland Mercury... it's a pretty standard  arts, entertainment, and political alt-weekly.  Their general style is heavy on snark and low brow humor.  Back around Halloween they ran the cover you see above - larger version here - click on cover image in link to enlarge.... I thought it was funny, with some great local jokes for article topics etc. I also thought it a bit ballsy given how grievously they were infringing upon National Geographic's cover design, type face etc, but I'm no attorney so I can't say I thought much more of it - I know that there is some significant room for parody of both copywritten (copyrighted? - gotta get me a dictionary!)  materials and trademarks - though I couldn't tell you exactly where those lines commonly get drawn.

Weeks later in the December 18th issue's letters to the editors I was struck by the following exchange between National Geographic and The Portland Mercury:

DEAR WILLIAM STEVEN HUMPHREY, EDITOR IN CHIEF, MERCURY GEOGRAPHIC [Halloween Dress-Up Issue, Oct 30]—Your October [30], 2008 edition of Mercury Geographic has been brought to our attention. I hope you are not surprised, as National Geographic has a 120-year-old record and responsibility to cover the world and everything that is in it.
Our first instinct in such circumstances is to issue a cease-and-desist letter to prevent any unauthorized use of our valued trademarks and trade dress, as well as various copyrighted material. We recognize, however, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and that your mimic of our recognized look for your "Halloween Dress-Up Issue" was not malicious appropriation, but in good fun.
In the same spirit of turning the other cheek, I hope that you will encourage your readers who are not current members to reconnect to the National Geographic Society by going online and subscribing to our official journal, National Geographic Magazine, where a fellow Northwesterner, Chris Johns, is editor in chief. For an important educational and entertaining product with significant relevance, take a new look at this familiar yellow-bordered magazine now. A membership for a loved one makes and economical and lasting gift for the holidays, too.
•Terrence Adamson, Executive Vice President, National Geographic

CONGRATULATIONS TO TERRENCE and the entire crew at the National Geographic Society for their ability to take a joke. We encourage everyone to check out both the print and online publications put out by this fine, time-tested organization. Likewise, we encourage National Geographic to explore the unique culture of Portlanders—their winnings for letter of the week are a good start, with two tickets to the Laurelhurst Theater and lunch at No Fish! Go Fish!, where I'm sure you will find fish species unlike any you've seen before.

I'm taking the time to chronicle this here since I was struck by how well Mr. Adamson of National Geographic handled this situation.  While it's possible that National Geographic's lawyers were busy behind the scenes in addition to his letter, the fact remains that conceptually,  the music business could learn quite a bit from Mr Adamson on how to make an opportunity out of a circumstance such as this.  This parody cover is not directly analogous to file trading or the posting of video and musical content on YouTube,  but his response  does illustrate how much Mr Adamson's bit of thought, class and wit contrasts with the RIAA suing people and basically missing no opportunity to actively make things worse as new technologies gain favor amongst consumers.

I should stress again  that I think that intellectual property deserves to be protected and the owners/creators of same be compensated for its use - however, I also think that the door of the old business model barn has been open for so long now that the horses are about 2 counties away from us by now and still running hard.  It's well past time to figure out some other way for us to interact with consumers of music and monetize that relationship using a new model.  But that's just one person's opinion, and clearly,  I don't run a major record label or publishing company.  Shiny round plastic discs aren't dead yet, but I think we can hear the death rattle quite clearly.  I prefer to move aside in a new direction instead of ending up trapped under the falling corpse of the old business colossus - because we can.

updated: 9 years ago