Fandom and cultural contamination

I wish I could say that I am not a fan; fans are people who are irrational when it comes to the object of their admiration. But I would be lying: I am a great fan of the works of Hergé, the creator of Tintin. I have at least half of the Tintin albums twice, sometimes even three times: some in the old Dutch translation, some French versions and two Spanish. I bought a collection of the complete Hergé. I have spent hundreds of euros on crappy biographies. I am a fan.

What I like so much about the man’s work is, of course, hard to say. The Tintin books are part of my consciousness. Sometimes I dream unwritten Tintin stories. Many pictures of the albums are like icons of the 20th century. With Franquin and the Goscinny/Uderzo team, Hergé was one of the pillars of the European humorous adventure comic in the last century. This may not mean much to people outside western Europe, but these comics were a part of growing up.

Tintin is also connected by many tendrils to the current main topic of this blog, copyright law. The strip started shortly after the ideas generated by the Berne convention had established themselves, and the author died shortly before digital copying became ubiquitous. After his death, Hergé’s widow Fanny married Nick Rodwell, as bereft as her of any talent but that of greed. Together they maximized the profits created by somebody else’s hard work, vigorously attacking anybody who used a Tintin drawing for whatever purpose.

There is a scene in The Calculus Affair where Captain Haddock tries to get rid of a piece of band-aid. It is stuck to his hand, and Haddock is waving furiously to rid himself of this meddlesome piece. He succeeds, but through a hilareous series of events the band-aid keeps coming back to him.

Art is like that too. What’s more, anything that is copyrighted is like that piece of band-aid. Once you have learned of its existence, and the idea it encapsulates, you cannot get rid of it.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), our minds are not DRMed computers. We do not always know which ideas are ours and which are those of others. I used to write comics with a bunch of guys in Nijmegen, the town of my alma mater. The process was not necessarily productive, but it was fun; we would sit around the table and keep spewing forth jokes and ideas, until we thought we had some useful ones. We would often hit a corny mood in which everything was funny and nothing was useful.

Then, the next day, one of us, appointed by the others, would sit down and write out a funny story we could sell. (Yes, it’s true, I have worked for the Evil Empire. What’s worse, I would do it again.)

Within days I would have forgotten who thought of what. It was not that the truly brilliant ideas did not originate in any one person, but because the others immediately started building on it, or used an idea as the starting point for a new line of thought, it was hard to identify afterwards who had thought of what.

And once an idea is out in the open, who is to stop it? You can call it plagiarism or infringement, I call it human nature. There is a fine line between what should be allowed and what not, but I trust most people know where to draw it. The law, unfortunately, has not caught up yet.

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