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Conan the Copyright Barbarian

April 15, 2010

With the launch of Conan’s new tour, I’ve realized that the career arc of Conan O’Brien is a perfect microcosm of the Copyright revolution. Think about it. Conan’s career blossomed as a result of appealing to geeks (like myself) in the early years, serving the loyal fan-base steadily, so that they would stay with him long enough to become a mainstream success (sort of). At the very least, they’ve made his career. Team Coco (long before it was called that) had been a social network that worked to ensure that Conan received his due, whether or not that translated into raw ratings. Thanks to the support of Team Coco, Conan made it big with a huge contract with NBC to host the Tonight Show, an institution of media dating back as long as there had been broadcast, and he was looking to shape the old platform in his new image.

But lo, NBC executives reared their ugly heads and basically fired Conan in favor of the incumbent media (Leno) that was throwing a hissy fit for not getting enough attention. Everyone knew that Conan was the wave of the future, and that following the old model that had “worked in the past” was simply not going to cut it a couple of years down the line. The problem was that the old guard didn’t know how to monetize Conan’s broad audience because the old paradigm of “Broadcast + Ads” no longer worked for this ultra-savvy crowd that just as often would digitally record and redistribute those broadcasts. Infringement is a fact in today’s media economy, and you can make it work to your advantage or you can stubbornly fight and lose; NBC chose the latter route.

NBC’s blunder really exposes the parallels to Copyright in the modern world. All of a sudden, flash mobs would show up in support of Conan at rallies against NBC. The internet was choked with Team Coco support, including defacing Leno’s hulu tags. Because the basic principles of the Streisand Effect were at work, with an already agitated and technology savvy fan-base, the results of a new democratic locus of power in the media were impressive. Conan had become an old-media-vs.-new-media lightning rod.

Very importantly, Conan was also savvy to his audience and realized that the old broadcast model wasn’t going to get him what he wanted, which was full control of his own art. The Twentieth Century saw an artistic paradigm where almost all “commercial” artists were forced to cede some modicum of creative control to their distributors who made their decisions based on purely economic rationales, rather than concern for the artistic integrity. In the world where networked distribution has made the old model obsolete and the long tail provides a long-term profit model, having a quality product is much more commercially viable than ever. Moreover, with the costs of production being so low, artists can afford to cobble their product out of their own storefront more than ever. Conan did just that with his Twitter account. And he took his show on the road, realizing there was money to be made from live performances that cannot be digitally distributed (Hell, I’m going). And then he decided that he didn’t need a big, overproduced, overcontrolling broadcast network (including Fox) to tell him how to appeal to his own audience; he could do that on TBS with much more of his own control and therefore satisfaction. And he will.

Conan’s tour, quite fittingly entitled “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” consists of a variety show filled with such derivative works that dance on both sides of the border between parody and satire, one clearly protected by the limits imposed on Copyright by the First Amendment, the other subject to lawsuit for creating a derivative work. E.g.,

In all likelihood, Conan actually obtained the rights to use these songs in his show, but his performance emphasizes how useful giving a creator a base level of content to work with and letting them build on top of the content by adding their own creativity to the mix. That’s why the argument about the public domain and when the copyright on old works will expire (if ever) is so important. The public domain is necessary for younger generations of creators that don’t have Conan’s base level of resources to obtain the rights to songs to perform live. Just look at what kids can do with Twitter and Shakespeare (ok, maybe that’s a bad example). But I will say, I’m not too worried about Conan, and he doesn’t seem to be too worried either:

And when the Economist has come around to your position, people with real influence might finally start taking the idea seriously. That is if Conan wasn’t influential enough as it is.

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