Guest Post by Elaine K. Phillips

So you’ve shot a film—a gorgeous story that’s haunted you for years. You couldn’t be more proud. Everyone who sees it encourages you to take it to Sundance, and you start to let yourself wonder if maybe, just maybe, you could get a studio deal and go mainstream.

Well, if you do get that coveted film deal—as The Blair Witch Project directors Myrick and Sánchez did with Artisan Entertainment in 1999—who owns your story? You? The film studio? The publisher? None of the above?

The answer? It’s…complicated.

In previous posts, we’ve discussed the economic and socio-technical factors that empower you to create thriving transmedia storyworlds—developments like Kickstarter and Twitter that make transmedia seem easy. Now it’s time to look at the political-legal factors that, whether you like it or not, will shape how to spread your story across media.

Political-Legal Factors

The definition of “owning” an intellectual property (IP) is hugely important and contentious. How you control your intellectual property (IP)—or fail to do so—can transform the fate of your entire transmedia storyworld.

star-trek-into-darkness-benedict-cumberbatch J.J. Abrams’s rumored transmedia visions for the Star Trek universe are a case in point. The Star Trek licensing rights are infinitely more convoluted than the Into Darkness plot. When Gene Roddenberry’s Gulliver’s Travels-in-space first aired on CBS in 1966, the network was owned by Paramount, which was owned by Viacom. Hence Viacom, via Paramount, owned Star Trek’s licensing and merchandising rights. At least until 2006, when CBS left Viacom. Now, CBS retains television and merchandising rights, while Paramount retains its existing film rights. This means that before creating merchandise for any film, Paramount has to meet with CBS to hammer out a licensing deal. As a result, none of Abrams’ ideas to spread a story across platforms—perhaps by creating tie-in comics, video games, or digital experiences—have much hope of coming to life.

On the other hand, Disney’s decision to buy 100% of Star Wars in 2013 makes expanding the story across films, games, books, comics, television shows, and apps a legal breeze. So Abrams—if the rumors are true—ditched the Enterprise for the Millennium Falcon, confident that Disney’s central control of the IP would liberate the Star Wars creative team to explore innovative storytelling possibilities and push transmedia techniques into new realms.

Clearly, independent creators want to fly on the Falcon, too. (Who doesn’t?) If you want storytelling freedom, you need to control your intellectual property rights.

The good news: you totally can.

How to “Own” Your IP–And Make it Work for You

Star-Trek-Into-Darkness-Chris-PineWhether you’re an individual storyteller or part of an independent creative team, you, as the originator of the storyworld, have both economic and moral rights to your IP, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. In other words, you have the right (1) to control who makes copies of your work and in what formats, (2) to receive payment for said copies, (3) to authorize and produce adaptations of your work in other media, (4) to protect your story from unauthorized changes, and (5) to assert that the work is, in fact, yours.

As Nuno Bernardo explains in Transmedia 2.0, an independent transmedia creator is well positioned to “own” his or her IP, and thus protect and leverage it to his or her advantage. Casting yourself in the role of producer, you can self-publish your novel, casual game, or short film. Once you have a successful “proof of concept” project with a quantifiable audience, you can use pitch one segment of your story-world to a traditional media company, using said audience as leverage to secure a deal with more preferable terms. Meanwhile, you as the producer maintain control over your transmedia property overall.

In contrast, when you sign a book deal with a publisher, you generally relinquish some rights—most notably, one and four—in return for an advance payment, a low-stress production and publicity experience, and, theoretically, royalties. As a result, if you want to explore a book character further in a blog, film, or game, you’ll likely have to talk first with your publisher’s rights and permissions department. In this way, a traditional media deal can undermine your control of transmedia-style extensions.

But in the last few years, publishers, film producers, and game studios have begun to examine their cross-media strategies. As more Internet-native storytellers position themselves as entrepreneurs, digital publishers especially are considering ways to form partnerships with authors as they regularly do with film and game studios. Doors are opening for independent storytellers to craft storyworlds one piece at a time, for one medium at a time, forming partnerships with traditional media companies only as needed.

Ready to get started? To learn more about transmedia storytelling techniques and business strategies, check out A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling by Andrea Phillips, Transmedia 2.0 by Nuno Bernardo, and more articles by Elaine K. Phillips: “The Heart Behind the Hype” and “Why Transmedia Storytelling Works for Indie Creators.”

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208352_10150246793858626_1917967_nElaine K. Phillips recently completed her M.A. in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University, having penned her dissertation on transmedia storytelling’s impact on fiction publishers. From digital intern to magazine editor, Elaine has held diverse positions across the British and American publishing industries, but her greater passion is crafting thought-provoking adventure tales. She finished her first (bad, bad, bad) science-fiction novel at eleven and is currently writing an alternate history sci-fi novel set in fifteenth-century Britain and China. She’s obsessed with digital media theory, children’s media, and coffee, and would love to discuss any of the above with you on Twitter. Learn more about Elaine through her website and LinkedIn and Contently profiles.