Note: The views expressed on this blog are my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer, its management, shareholders or employees.
From Crayons to A Whole New World
Throughout his childhood and teen years, graphic designer/illustrator/game developer Matt Crane loved to draw what he watched on television or read in comic books. From He-Man to Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Disney’s Aladdin, he gravitated toward popular cartoons and comic book characters. Visit Crane’s personal site for his portfolio >
But it was a video game, Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo, which first exposed him to the world of graphic design. “That was a turning point for me,” he said.
Since his family didn’t own a computer, Crane quickly became fascinated with the game’s digital drawing, painting, animation and musical composition power. “I’ve often marveled at how that early experience with Mario Paint was a small taste of many of the things I would do later in my career.”
Crane’s Life on Capcom’s Streets
It was, of course, the graphics of Capcom’s Street Fighter II game that caught Crane’s eye when it hit North American arcades of his childhood. It quickly became one of his favorites.
“It was impossible for me to not notice,” he said. “The graphics were much larger, and had more frames of animation than most of the games before it… The characters were so creative and fun.”
Crane fondly remembers Dhalsim, the Indian spiritualist with “stretchy limbs” who could spit fire from his mouth. And Blanka, “a green monster that can electrocute people? It was so mind-blowingly cool at the time.”
He played as Guile, a U.S. Air Force soldier who joins Street Fighter’s World Warrior tournament to avenge his friend’s death. With the ability to hurl “sonic booms” at his opponents from afar, whilst keeping his famous, exaggerated blonde flattop perfectly kempt, Guile was a favorite amongst American players. Errr… Perhaps favorite until Jean-Claude Van Damme portrayed the character in the 1994 live-action film/abomination, Street Fighter. Gah… right in the childhood.
Now, with children of his own, some of the popular characters of his childhood and teen years continue to influence Crane’s home and professional life.
He’s introduced one of his favorite Sesame Street characters, Oscar the Grouch, to his children. “I love reading an Oscar book to my kids… It’s one of our favorites to read together,” he said, “where he keeps telling the readers to GO AWAY.”
GO AWAY… A giggle-inducing outburst from a lovable, albeit curmudgeon of a kid’s character. But, when Capcom, video game giant and producer of Street Fighter II, responded Grouch-style to Crane’s fan artwork, there was little to laugh about… More on that, but first, some background.
Cartoon Mashups, Culture Connections
Though the idea came to him as a young teen, Crane admits he was “certainly not the first, nor the only person who had the idea to combine Street Fighter and Sesame Street.”
He remembers doodling the characters in junior high school, sketching Bird Bird throwing fireballs at Grover, a ‘la Street Fighter’s protagonist Ryu. “There was obviously some cross-over potential, just based on the fact both franchises have the word “Street” in them,” he said.
The fourth installment of the Street Fighter series ultimately led to Crane’s decision to “take a serious crack” at developing the Sesame Street Fighter illustration series. He noticed some characters naturally “mashed up” together. “Bert and Ryu? Both serious guys, in contrast to Ken and Ernie, who are less serious, fun-loving types.”
“I never thought I’d be able to sell my artwork… I just did my illustrations and posted them on Deviantart.com,” where he’s been a community member for about five years. “I just hoped I’d get a few laughs and page views,” he said.
He found tschotskes, trinkets, t-shirts and stickers on Websites like Zazzle and Cafepress, where users upload personal artwork to produce custom merchandise, Crane had the idea to make his own line of Sesame Street Fighter items. However, site censors quickly identified and rejected his work, citing copyright infringement.
Eventually, he discovered Redbubble.com, where he noticed a number of parody and satirical designs from licensed franchises like Star Wars. “Sure enough, [they weren’t] as strict as the other Websites I tried using,” allowing him to begin selling his items. Visit Crane’s Store on Redbubble, Buy a Shirt >
Capcom the Grouch
While it’s unclear how Capcom became aware of his Sesame Street Fighter merchandise, Crane indicated the company contacted Redbubble, demanding the site remove its trademarked characters. The site complied. “I was saddened, of course,” he admits, “but wasn’t all that surprised… At least I sold a few shirts, and bought one for myself and my wife before I got shut down,” he said.
After his initial disappointment, Crane began searching through Redbubble to uncover other fan-made merchandise that used trademarked characters. A Star Wars parody, featuring Calvin and Hobbes, caught his eye. “I’m doing exactly what these other people are doing… Why can these other people sell their work… but when I try, I get shut down?”
Crane composed an e-mail to Redbubble, appealing its compliance to Capcom’s demands. He included examples of his work, then referenced other parodies he found. “Amazingly, they actually cared enough to respond to me,” he said. “They basically said that they weren’t saying I was violating any copyrights with my artwork, but Capcom was pushing [the site to remove his merchandise].”
The Greatest Form of Flattery
Redbubble directed Crane to a number of forms and Websites that helped him create an official rebuttal to Capcom. After following the instructions, his appeal was simple: “I didn’t believe I was infringing on their copyright,” he said. “What I was doing was clearly a parody, and that as a parody, my work would be protected if they wanted to take me to court.”
“It’s an important distinction,” Crane said. If he were simply creating illustrations of Big Bird, or Ken & Ryu, then selling the individually trademarked characters on his own merchandise is “obviously not right… I wouldn’t blame Capcom at all for stopping me from doing that.”
But Crane maintains his unique twist on Capcom and PBS’ intellectual property is something altogether different. “That’s what makes it fun,” he said. “A combination that we all know would probably never actually occur between the two companies,” although, he noted, Hello Kitty is producing Street Fighter material, “which is great.”
“Honestly, I don’t think the existence of my Sesame Street Fighter Parody merchandise is any kind of threat that Capcom should be worried about, legally or financially,” he said.
“Was Michael Jackson getting screwed by Weird Al? Was George Lucas getting screwed by Mel Brooks when Spaceballs came out? … I doubt it.”
Crane thinks George Lucas is “smart enough to know that if fans want to create their own little spin-offs and parodies, that it will help more than hurt him.” He believes Capcom benefits from his parody as well. “It’s free publicity for them, and I doubt there are fans out there who are buying my parody stuff instead of buying official Capcom licensed stuff.”
The Semi-Silent Treatment
Crane never received an official response from Capcom, though his materials were relaunched on Redbubble soon after his appeal. His sales total slightly more than 200 items since his encounter with the brand. “That’s a drop in the bucket compared to whatever kinds of numbers officially licensed Capcom stuff is selling, I’m sure.”
“I’m assuming that they decided it wasn’t worth getting into,” he said. “It’s funny,” Crane adds, noting Capcom’s former online community manager, Seth Killian, posted his Sesame Street Fighter artwork on one of Capcom’s largest fan Websites when his work was removed from Redbubble. One community member commented “The most epic fanart crossover… ever!!!!” in response.
While Killian’s comments weren’t exactly complementary, he obviously had a sense of humor about it, Crane figures. “[He wasn’t] looking at it as something that’s a threat to the company.”
“I think [Killian’s posting] is a good example of the kind of response I would hope Capcom would have toward my artwork,” he said. “Just have a good laugh, then go back to making tons of money selling great games, right?”
Crane speculates Capcom’s staff in Japan may have had a more difficult time discerning between infringement of its intellectual property and fan work. “What I’m doing is a compliment to them,” he said. “I’m a big Capcom fan, and I’m also a big Jim Henson fan. I wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt either of their intellectual properties, and I don’t think I am.”
A Brand’s Guide to Picking Its Fights
To be fair, brands and marketers have an obligation to protect corporate identities and trademarks. Allowing any and every violation of trademark and copyright infringement to simply slide through in the name of creative freedom could set a precarious legal precedent.
However, the digital and social revolution has forever changed the relationship between brands and consumers. Consumers effectively “own” a brand’s reputation. A single consumer tweet, wall post or Instagram photo can rally troupes for or against your product or service. Thus, whether it’s moral, ethical or otherwise, my not-so-legal opinion remains: when consumers organically use your brand to express themselves online, it’s something we should celebrate, not litigate. Recognizing and understanding consumer intent is key.
But how can marketers ensure brand identity is consistently maintained in the online landscape as it exists today? First, I agree with Ernst & Young’s suggestion that marketers develop and implement a holistic digital and social strategy that both protects your brand, but allows for flexibility in the rapidly evolving space – especially when it concerns consumer expression of brand enthusiasm and loyalty.
Secondly, if you truly need to feel in control, provide fans with tools, parameters and opportunities to “play” with your brand. It could be high resolution photos or images, logos, etc. Encourage fan and enthusiast expression on your digital canvas, like my former team at Ford did when we produced the second incarnation of the Mustang Customizer.
As mentioned in my previous post about Stride Gum & Apple, parody and satire can be powerful tools to rewire consumer thinking and jumpstart brand conversations, whether it’s brand or fan-produced. I believe fanwork like Crane’s enhances Capcom’s brand and reach.
Using nostalgic cultural icons, it both has relevance to potential new fans, and reignites positive sentiment and conversation to its existing base – all at no cost to Capcom. Frankly, I wonder how much cash Capcom potentially wasted on legal efforts to thwart the very objectives and engagements they’d pay for through media investments.
My opinion? If it’s truly not hurting your bottom line, it’s likely helping your brand in the long run. Perhaps legally naive, but digiculturally appropriate.
A few tips & opinions:
- Recognize the difference between opportunists/parasitic companies and true consumer enthusiasts. Sure, Crane may have made a few bucks with his parody, but both Sesame Street and Capcom gained precious digicultural relevancy. Online fans, enthusiasts and owners have already given you their attention, engagement and advocacy, which is incredibly valuable. Don’t punish them.
- Celebrate fandom. Show your appreciation. Ask if you can share their work with other fans. Give them prizes or shoot them an appreciative note.
- Provide fans with tools, parameters and opportunities to “play” with your brand (high res photos, logos, etc.).
- Have questions or concerns about fanwork? Begin a dialogue with the consumer(s) in question directly – and, potentially, discretely. With Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social sites, it’s fairly easy to identify a way to make meaningful contact.
- Don’t intimidate your fans, or act like a corporate Goliath. Big corporations can be scary. People who work at corporations? Less so. Demonstrate you’re someone who cares, who happens to represent a company. I’m clearly not a legal expert, but don’t leave it to your lawyers alone.