Tuesday, April 23, 2019

I'm not done talking about the DOCTOR WHO shirt contest.


You ever just get a bug up your butt about something you should probably let go, but you also know yourself and that you're absolutely not letting go of this anytime soon? That's me and the BBC's new Doctor Who shirt "contest."

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, or only a basic idea, have a seat, because we're gonna be here for a bit.

A few days ago, the BBC cracked open a fan art competition, inviting aspiring Who art sorts to submit art of any of the canonical TV Doctors with their TARDIS. Four runners up will receive a goody bag of Doctor Who merch totaling up to about $680, with a grand prize winner getting a Doctor Who-themed weekend in London.

Sounds great, right?

They also will be printing these designs on shirts and selling them. And the artists will not be getting a cut of sales.


Now, okay. Let's talk about this because I already see a few of you crunching the prize numbers in your head. Four of these five people will be getting just under $700 in things, and one will be getting a weekend whose expenses tot up into the four digits. So come on, this is solid. Right?

If it were just a fan art contest, and the art was shown on the World Tour or at SDCC onscreen as has been done in the past, then sure, I'd agree with you. But there is a difference between paying someone money and handing them that same amount of money's worth of Things. Especially if they have done work for it. Doubly especially if it is your licensed things.

Not long ago, I was offered compensation for my work in Stuff. I turned it down. Not because I considered the Stuff unworthy, but because there are other things I need and want to use my writing fees for. Groceries. Student loans. Prescription medications. Sure, maybe something less essential like fan merch or a trip, but not consistently.

Take into consideration, too, that what we would pay for these things retail is not what they pay wholesale. It is very, very easy for them to give any and all of the things in either of the prize packs to people without breaking a sweat. I have stacks of books I never managed to sell and that are just sitting there doing nothing in my workshop. I could assemble a $100 "prize pack" for people out of sunk costs. Am I saying that's what the BBC is doing? No; but I am saying we need to think that way about "prize packs" that come directly from a person's creations or IP being offered in place of payment.


Also of concern — major concern — is that having your art put on a shirt that the BBC will then sell for money that they themselves will keep is considered part of the prize. You get to have your art used on one of their shirts.

Let me tell you another story. Someone I've worked for, who will remain nameless, wanted me to help set up a contest. It would involve fan-created content being submitted to said company. I asked what the prize was. The person said, completely unironically, "The prize is that we use it." And added, as though it was totally okay, "When actually they're just making content for us that we now don't have to make." (Suffice to say I have not helped with said initiative beyond informing them that there needs to be proper recompense.)

Look at what's happening here. The BBC has opened up a massive "contest," in which fan artists pick the Doctor they want to draw. Then marketing takes their pick of those, throws some merch and a DVD viewing party at them, and makes bank on the result, end of story.

So where do I even start on this?

1. They get free market research and art.

Okay, as a fan of lesser-marketed Doctors (8 and 12 are my eternal faves), normally I would appreciate any initiative to allow fans to choose for themselves; which lets fans put forward, let's be real, someone besides 4, 10, or 13. 

But there's something that rubs me the wrong way about this. Strip away the "contest" or "competition" label briefly. What does this become? A multinational company saying "We want as many people as possible to send us as much art as possible of the Doctor they most want to see on a shirt."

That's literally just market research. They're literally just polling the audience. Which tells me they don't know which of their Doctors is most marketable, and they don't want to just run a poll that says "Hey, what would you buy?" Again, not certain, but my gut tells me that how many entries each Doctor receives will play into it — and the top five art pieces will be pulled from the top five most represented Doctors.

Now they don't have to do research and they don't have to pay artists. They just have fans send them what they want to see, then pick their favorites and throw merch at the ones they use, and walk away with the rights... which they can do because of their tangly rules and regulations, in which entrants give up their rights to the work they submit. 

(And if your knee-jerk reaction is, "Well, they own Doctor Who so technically they'd own depictions of their characters already," have a look at this video for a good talk on copyright law and derivative fan works.)


2. They are normalizing lack of credit or recompense for art.

If you're an artist in any fan community — or hell, just an artist online — you have likely had your art reposted without credit somewhere. If you're really lucky, you've seen it stripped of your signature and watermark, then when you spoke up you were told you had no right to complain because theft means your work is liked.

I find it hilarious that the contest's big bold lead is Your artwork could win you intergalactic fame. Because it couldn't. Unless they're gonna pop your name and Venmo on the sleeve of every shirt, all that will happen is that someone else will take your art, strip it of your influence, and benefit from it. Except this time, it's a major company and not some chucklehead with a curated Instagram account.

Are there some people out there who would be satisfied with knowing that there are official licensed BBC shirts out there with their art on it, even if they never see a dime or hear from BBC Worldwide again? I'm sure. Probably. Law of 7 billion. But to set up the scenario in a way that says "This is how you should feel about it" is unfair and unkind to fans.

3. They don't have to do this, nor should they.

I've worked on a shoestring for lots of publishers, working for scale (and occasionally gratis) for small print runs or charity anthologies. In those cases, either the publisher has limited funds and is giving me some pocket money as goodwill, or the money is going straight to a charity and the publisher only sees it long enough to sign it over. No one is benefiting off my or anyone's back and leaving us out in the cold... and if I find they are, I leave.

The BBC isn't Disney, granted. It's a different setup, a different scenario. But it is not so poor that it can't pay 1-5 people a fair flat fee for art and either a cut of sales or up-front the right to sell it. It's not. It's just not. I've met the companies that really are that poor, and the scrupulous ones still drop something in your PayPal because they would feel wrong otherwise.

Unless things are really strapped beyond belief at the BBC, there's no reason for them to be tricking people into free work this way. It's not respectful to the fans, and — yeah, I'll play that card — it is not what the Doctor would do.

Tardis artwork

"Fine, then don't enter and leave it to the people who want to." I mean... that's all you can really do. I get it. And sure, there will be people out there (as I said) for whom this is no issue.

But step back. Look at this and think about it. Doctor Who is, in 2019, a global phenomenon. Many, many creators have gotten their feet wet writing or drawing or otherwise creating fan works for it. Many have gone on to be paid, recognized members of the expanded Who community.

And yet, here's this contest, which many younger sorts will likely enter, and what does it do? It frames having your work used without name or payment as "intergalactic fame." It glorifies erasing the person behind the work, comping them with toys and trinkets. It says, "Oh, yes, there are fans who can make good and become well-known and well-paid, but you don't get to sit with them. We'll still use your work, though."

As a creator who's contributed to the expanded universe officially and unofficially, I am disappointed. I'm sad and distressed and a little mad that this is the public face of the show I love so much: taking advantage of its fan base for product, and in the same breath telling them that it's not only okay, but good. That supplying labor for no pay or credit is something to be striven for because you're doing it for a famous thing you're a fan of. If they even included commission in the form of a "cash prize," that would be something.

But this all reeks way too hard for me. I've seen too many artists get taken advantage of by other companies, by fellow fans, and I can't believe the people at the top are doing it now. 

You're better than this, BBC. Do right by your fans. Please.

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