Life at the Bleeding Edge of Collaboration

Eyes of the Voice, by ValesseBy Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee

My previous post, Collaborative Communities: Transmedia Evolved, described the model of collaborative communities Scott Walker has built with his company Brain Candy, and promised to go deeper into Runes of Gallidon, the “living fantasy world designed for creative collaboration in an online community” they have created as a proof of concept.

Launched in July 2009, Runes of Gallidon is set up as a “collaborative sandbox”: the basic story of a collapsing empire threatened by dark forces was developed internally at Brain Candy, but anyone can submit a contribution to build out the story in the form of prose, games, art, audio, video or any other digitizable medium. All submissions are reviewed by Walker, and those that meet a threshold of quality and legality are posted to the Gallidon gallery and become a canonical part of the world. Users can then rate the submitted works, and the best rise to the top of the ranking.

In order to have a work posted to the site, creators have to sign an agreement allowing their work to be published under a Creative Commons license, which allows Brain Candy to use their work for commercial profit, paying 50% of gross. It also allows the work to be remixed or copied and distributed non-commercially by Gallidon users or anyone else. The creators​ retain rights to the work and can also publish and sell it separately, paying Brain Candy 10% of the revenue they​​​ earn.

Though not part of the written agreement, guidelines on the site encourage creators play by the rules of the world, meaning ​​​​​​​​​​they are free to use characters, objects, or places created by others, but with respect — they can’t “kill, humiliate, degrade, or irrevocably damage” them without asking permission. Walker encourages communication between creators and says any submission that kills off another person’s creation is treated to extra scrutiny.

Artisans, Works, and Ideas

The flip-side is that, just as creators can use other people’s characters, they have to offer up their own creations under the CC license for other authors and artists to play with. Walker says this decision was key to creating a clean legal and revenue structure for Gallidon.

“The solution we came up with was to simply say the philosophy behind the world is to contribute to the world, so that there’s more there to be used as input for additional creative works,” he explains. “To keep revenue sharing simple, we said it will be done at the work level, at the completed creative project level — so characters, places, items, events, anything that is typically non-copyrightable, that is part of a larger work that is copyrightable, those ideas are thrown into the community portfolio when we accept a work, and anyone can grab those ideas. There is no trail of dollars, no revenue sharing that occurs at the idea level. You are rewarded not for coming up with the idea of a character, or a place or an item, but for taking the time to hammer that idea into a quality storytelling or artistic experience.”

Yes, behind this share-and-share-alike doctrine is a real business model. “Gallidon was meant to both provide entertainment but to also solicit entertainment,” says Walker. “The idea is that we are able to expand the property far faster by allowing outside content to come in, under a filtered process, than if we were to try and pay for all of that content to be internally produced.”

Walker is pleased with how well the legal and community framework Brain Candy created has held up. Other parts of the project, however, started off less smoothly.

Attracting a big audience has been a challenge, despite promotions online and at big events like Comic-Con. One of the lessons Walker learned, he said, was that “you’re trying to address two different audiences” with a project like Gallidon. “You’re trying to say, fantasy fans, here is a robust world, rich in detail, across multiple media, to come and discover and enjoy. And oh, by the way, anyone who has a creative bent — illustrator, writer, videographer, whatever — you can also participate by contributing content to the world. Those are two very different messages.”

Tavern Battle by Andy Underwood

The Limits of Engagement

The gap in audience engagement caused Walker to make some adjustments to his strategy.

“What we realized was we launched a sandbox as big as a fantasy world, and sprinkled it with lots of different mediums — so we’ve got art, RPG, video, text — and we said here you go, here’s a world. We seeded it with some flash fictions, some short stories, pieces of work on a rather small scale, and we never launched it with what I would call a large tentpole piece of content, a large novel or a graphic novel, or even a series of short films. While that was a conscious decision on our part, I think at the end of the day when you start dealing with collaborative projects and you’re inviting participation, one of the keys to success is to give the audience some initial story line to hang on to, even if that story line initially limits the scope of the world.”

To provide a story of the kind of scope he thinks will make Gallidon more compelling, Walker is writing a full-length book, which he plans to publish on the site in installments, with a POD edition to follow once the book is complete. He is optimistic about the tools he now has at his disposal to sell the book himself.

“The whole mindset of this from the beginning was to see how lean of an operation you can make it,” says Walker. “We launched the company in 2008, and in the last couple of years it’s been fascinating to see the advances in print-on-demand and self-publishing tools and the changing view of what it means to be self-published. This year alone you have the advent of the iPad as a distribution channel.”

The lesson that the audience needs a big, compelling story to fall in love with is an interesting one, and I couldn’t help but ask if Walker wouldn’t like to work with a book editor and publishing house — after all, it is their job to help shape and produce just those kinds of stories.

His response: “I’m not even thinking about working with a publisher on this. I’m going to try to get this thing off the ground myself. It would be wonderful to have a publisher, but I feel like the exercise of trying to get a publisher interested in this type of world, with the revenue share that’s going on, with the Creative Commons licensing… I know all too well, first-hand, the difficulties of trying to communicate the business model behind this IP and I feel like there would be a better use of my time. There might be some licensing opportunities down the road.”

Fan Fiction Running Rampant

Growth may have been measured, but the Gallidon site has attracted creators eager for the chance to get a piece of the revenue in exchange for their contributions, and it already contains works in the form of writing, drawings, photos, role-playing games, audiobooks and comics. There are even a couple of digital games, and Walker sees potential for more collaboration on that front. Film, on the other hand, is more difficult.

“The reality is that this model is not one that’s going to be easily translated into mainstream Hollywood,” says Walker, “because I don’t think the movie industry would be terribly interested in entering into a non-exclusive commercial agreement with Brain Candy for content that’s already out there under a CC license. The CC license itself opens up certain risks that large studios and networks are unwilling to deal with insofar as branding and market control. The idea that you could have fan fiction running rampant in the online community and have it protected in a certain way under Creative Commons where a cease and desist is not available to them — I don’t think they’re going to jump on board with that kind of a model. Which is not to say Runes of Gallidon can’t work, it’s just going to have a hard time scaling like most IP would because Hollywood won’t be able to get their exclusive rights on the content.”

The other restriction the revenue-share model has imposed is the decision Walker made early on to limit Gallidon creators to adults of legal age. “I think there’s a lot of untapped potential [in the YA market] if you’re able to navigate the legal risks,” he says, “and clearly a lot of companies do this on a regular basis, they have children coming to the website. The challenge is when you start to say, you still own that work, or there will be revenue sharing. That is where the legal hurdles get really really high. The easy answer is for creators to stay with adult participation, that obviously solves a lot of issues legally and reduces a lot of legal risk.”

The Bleeding Edge

Walker is aware that the Gallidon model will seem extreme to some observers and says he created the world in part to see how far he could push the collaborative model and still provide a means for​​​​​ creators to be paid for their work. The lessons he’s learned from the project ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​could apply any number of ways to any number of different properties.

“As the owner, you’re free to scope and scale the world,” explains Walker. “We could say, here’s Gallidon, but you can only play on this continent, or you can only play with these characters. It’s a very flexible model and you customize it based on the property and the genre that you’re dealing with. You include the limitations on the IP, whether there are existing licensing models that are going to inhibit what you can and can’t do with audiences. You look at the popularity of it. You look at whether Creative Commons makes sense, you look at whether revenue sharing makes sense.”

“Runes of Gallidon,” he concludes, “is just one example at the far edge, at the bleeding edge of collaborative commercial entertainment.”

Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.

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