Greg Pak's Vision Machine is an open cartoon strip - readers are actively encouraged to be more than readers; to take the content, remix, mash-up and republish. It's in keeping with the history of comic books, he explained to Gareth Mitchell.
The pair met up at SXSWi; this is an extended version of the interview broadcast on BBC World Service's Digital Planet.
Gareth Mitchell: Hello. I’m Gareth Mitchell presenter of Digital Planet and this is a special extended interview from the South by South West Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. Tell us about Vision Machine then.
Greg Pak: It is a crazy sci-fi story that imagines the world 50 years from now with kind of a special emphasis on the transformations that are going to affect the world of public media, which basically means transformations that affect everybody now, because we’re all filmmakers and media makers, anybody walking around with a smartphone and a YouTube account is a media maker. So 50 years from now Sprout Computers introduces the iEye, which is a pair of glasses that lets you instantly record anything you see and special effects, edit it and upload it and instantly distribute it to millions of other iEye users. It’s YouTube, Facebook and digital media at the speed of thought and it allows for this amazing creative blossoming and finally the companies have figured out the whole equitable payment issues and the copyright issues so that people can use excerpted material and it’s beautiful and it’s every filmmakers dream come true and then the other shoe drops, because of course the other shoe has to drop in a sci-fi story, because there are masters of privacy and surveillance issues that crop up, but it’s downloadable for free at visionmachine.net.
Gareth Mitchell: And that’s very interesting how you say downloadable for free. So tell me what free means in that context, I mean we don’t have to pay for it, how else is it free?
Greg Pak: It is distributed under a Creative Commons licence, it was funded by the Ford Foundation and so from the beginning the idea was to put our money where our mouth is since this book deals with copyright and trademark a lot, the story deals with that and to put it out there, to try one of these crazy new great things. Creative Commons is an amazing organisation that has put together these various licences that media makers can use to enable other people to use their media in the ways that they allow. The licence that we have picked up allows people to redistribute the book, you can remix it, you can recut it, you can do derivative stories and you can distribute them for free as long as you credit the original piece and do it non-commercially, so you’re not making money off it and that you are distributed under the same licence. It’s kind of a hard piece of work to pirate actually, because it’s free, but the exciting thing is that it also allows people to build on the story or expand on the story or critique the story if they want by using the actual elements from the story. You can take the actual art from the thing or you can take the characters and tell new stories or the ideas and tell new stories. We’ve had artists, some comic book artists have done their own riffs on some of the characters, which is just a blast to see and somebody has uploaded a story that talks about the use of the iEye and like a psychologist using the iEye and how a psychologist might use this technology. It’s just really interesting to see other people run with the story.
Gareth Mitchell: What’s in it for you as the creator of the content to release it like this?
Greg Pak: There are a lot of artists, comics people, musicians, filmmakers who are embracing these contracts, these Creative Commons licences and everybody has their own different way of doing it and their own different sort of idea of how it can be helpful. Nina Paley is a great cartoonist and filmmaker and she talks about the notion that the content is free, but the container she charges for. The ideas that people can redistribute the digital version and that’s great and it gets people talking about it and then she sells books for example. Jonathan Coulton is a great musician, he’s almost legendary as a guy who released a lot of music for free and developed a massive fan base as a result, I mean and it helps that he’s really, really funny and a really great musician at the same time, but for example people have taken his songs and created music videos for those songs and some insanely creative and great people have made these amazing music videos for him, so he gets a bunch of free music videos to promote his songs. I mean everybody’s got a different angle. I mean for me I mean I still retain the rights to exploit the work commercially myself, so I could make a movie or do other comics or whatever I wanted with it, but I write for Marvel, so I’m writing the Incredible Hulk and Silver Surfer and co-writing the Alpha Flight book with my buddy Fred Van Lente and so I don’t have to make money off of this project you know what I’m saying, but this project becomes part of just the stuff that I can talk about and share with people and then again with this particular project this was kind of the only way to do this project, do you know what I’m saying? Because of the subject matter and the nature of it. It’s also just a way for me to get my feet wet and to see what the heck this Creative Commons thing is all about. I mean I make my living based on the protection of trademark and copyright, I mean as a work for hire I do for Marvel depends upon that. So I’m a big supporter of that and I’m very much against want and pirating of stuff. At the same time, you know, projects like Vision Machine and other projects that I may work on the Creative Commons model may be a really smart way to get them out into the world.
Gareth Mitchell: And so with the Creative Commons model it allows all kinds of fanfiction to come about, because people can rework Vision Machine as they want to. Is there any danger that you might then develop the whole idea yourself and then weirdly almost be sued by one of your fans for your work that they claim is their own?
Greg Pak: I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far. I would have to talk to a lawyer. I mean as long as whatever I’m doing, you know, is a derivative of the actual work that I’ve done then I think I’m probably safe, but no I don’t have an answer for that.
Gareth Mitchell: But I suppose maybe a way of flipping the argument around is looking obviously at the upside, how exciting it is that people can create fanfiction and as an author I guess in a way how confident you must be with your material. I can’t help thinking if it was me I’d be terrified of people taking my work, my baby, stuff that I’m emotionally attached to as you must be with your work and just handing it over to them to do what they will, how do you feel about that?
Greg Pak: Well, you know, I work in comics for Marvel and that means that I’m working on characters that people have been working on for decades and everybody is beloved and criticised and hated at the same time, because, you know, whatever you’re doing with the character is either the greatest thing ever for the character or it’s a terrible betrayal of everything that character represents and so I’ve learned to try to separate myself personally from the work enough so that I don’t have to take it personally if somebody doesn’t like what’s happening with the character, do you know what I’m saying? I have to be totally personally invested in a story in order to tell the story do you know what I’m saying? But when it comes to giving it out to the world it’s like, you know, everybody’s going to have their own unique take on it and that’s just the way the world is and you can’t control that, you don’t want to control that, you want to let people make of it what they will, but in terms of Vision Machine no I’m thrilled to see what other people do with it. Like if somebody really had a lot of issues with it and thought that, you know, everything that I was suggesting is the wrong thing it’s not going to happen that way, I would love to see them take that and remix it and put in their own dialogue and redraw panels and fix it. I mean I think that’s a really constructive way for that kind of criticism to work, that would be amazing.