Calvin, Hobbes, Twitter, and Copyright

There is a battle going on between good and evil – right at the nexus between art and commerce, between the old way and the new, between Minions memes and classic philosophy. It is taking place smack in the middle of the untamed Wild West of online copyright law, right on the main drag of the rowdiest, dirtiest, most notorious and cut-throat town of them all: The stakes? The most precious of them all… our very way of life… 90s nostalgia…

I’m talking of course about the fake Calvin and Hobbes Twitter account.

If anything sums up how good people get fucked over constantly and trying to do things the right way is thoroughly, laughably pointless, it’s the fact that the official @calvinandhobbes Twitter account has 36,500 followers and “@Calvinn_hobbes” has 300,000. Of course it does.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been following @Calvinn_hobbes for maybe 18 months and it wasn’t until last week that the irony of the whole thing hit me. How did that not register? Bill Watterson has been on the record for over 20 years fighting those “Calvin peeing on things” bumper stickers. If he knew someone was tweeting his strips without permission – on an account that spells the main character’s name wrong on purpose, no less – he would surely roll over in his quiet nondescript suburban Ohio home.

Well I think it didn’t seem that weird to me at first because @Calvinn_hobbes doesn’t manipulate the characters at all, it just posts the strips with a caption. Like this:

Or this:

Or this:

I mean, not exactly “Weed Stewie” or “Racist Homer” or whatever the latest thing is. These definitely pass the “sniff test” – there is no bullshit going on. I emailed the “business inquiries” address in the bio and the mastermind behind it, who did not disclose his identity other than to say he’s a young guy in Alberta, claimed he “has never made a penny off the account.” And in fact, “[has] put a lot of time and money into it to grow it through promotions.” So not to worry, that email address in the bio is for purely benevolent “business inquiries.”

Who was it that said, “you must be honest to live outside the law”? @Bobb_Dylanquotes_1? This person seems honest enough. But Watterson doesn’t care how much you love his content, it’s his content. As recently as 2013, he has exercised his legal right as creator to compel the publisher, Andrews McMeel Universal, to issue a takedown notice to the blog Real Calvin and Hobbes, a Tumblr that takes the original color drawings of the two main characters and superimposes them onto beautiful hi-res images of real world settings. Key word “takes,” says Andrews McMeel’s lawyers: “We’re protective of the copyright for a variety of reasons, most importantly it is the express and unwavering will of the creator that any use of Calvin and Hobbes was limited to work he’d created and in very specific formats.”

So Watterson and his lawyers rode into Tumblr and cleaned up that town, you better believe Twitter will be next. Until recently there was no semblance or law and order whatsoever – it was a complete free-for-all of copyright infringement. But this summer, glimmer of hope: a small cadre of joke writers got mad at that guy the Fat Jew for stealing their work and Twitter finally had to address the problem. It instituted a system of recourse wherein users, as authors of their content, can file a complaint if someone steals that content – and actually get it taken down.

A further development came earlier this month when the NFL filed a complaint with Twitter that the sports blog Deadspin had posted 18 tweets containing copyrighted NFL content. Twitter responded by actually suspending the entire Deadspin Twitter account, which according to this article was a more forceful reaction than the NFL had even expected. Does Twitter just really value the creative merit of this official NFL content? Does it just eat them up inside to see this precious football content corrupted by the heathens online? Maybe. More likely they want to start their newly lucrative relationship with the NFL off on the right foot.

This spells trouble for accounts like @Calvinn_hobbes, as the NFL case happens to be perfectly congruent with the case Watterson would have against them. The issue, as I understand it after reading maybe four Wikipedia articles, comes down to whether or not Deadspin is within the fair use provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in posting a .gif of NFL broadcast with a caption. And specifically, whether or not including that caption is a transformative use of that original content. I.e. if you post a picture of Eli Manning looking dumb and write “when u hit the blunt and remember u have a game that day,” are you or are you not creating a new artistic work?

Similarly when @Calvinn_hobbes posts this strip about Calvin in school with the caption “School summed up on one picture,”

…it would seem that if this is judged to be a transformative use of the material, it is covered under fair use. If it is not transformative, it is illegal and presumably Twitter would take it down if Bill Watterson or Andrews McMeel Universal filed a complaint. Ironically, following this reasoning, it would seem that the owner of “Weed Stewie” would be more protected under fair use, but there you go.

So really it’s reasonable to assume it’s only a matter of time before Watterson happens to glance at a blurb about one of these stories in the Cleveland Plain Dealer while he’s in town buying oil brushes and rustles his posse of lawyers to get it sorted out. Maybe they’re doing that right now, who knows?

In any case, this is a huge bummer. Bill Watterson either doesn’t know how the internet works or he wants to smother these characters until you have to read the strips in some archive with a librarian looking over your shoulder making sure you don’t get too many smudges on the page. And honestly, he has a point. The value of Calvin and Hobbes is in its intricately constructed, explosively creative and unique world, free from the corrosive influence of advertising and merchandising. Maybe if it wasn’t preserved so rigorously, it wouldn’t remain so whimsical and pure.

But still, as @Calvinn_hobbes demonstrates, you gotta play the game a little bit to reach people. The official @calvinandhobbes Twitter links to one syndicated strip per day on a third party website, letting audience come to it if they so please, but will certainly never stoop to using an emoji or embedding a strip as a Twitter picture. Why, that would deprive the official third party hosting site, GoComics, the page view under official digital distribution channels, blah blah blah…

While all this is happening, kids and teenagers are eating up garbage like Minions by the second. The Minions are yellow blobs that teach kids that working is fun and questioning authority is bad. Isn’t it weird how it always works out that way? Like my uncle always says, if it sells, it smells. Well @Calvinn_hobbes doesn’t smell – like I said, it does pass the sniff test – and inevitably Watterson is going to make sure it doesn’t sell either.

Ultimately nothing in this whole equation matters except respecting the artistic wishes of Bill Watterson, even if it means restricting this great content to the audience who already knows and likes it and declining to use full power of the social media internet. That’s his prerogative. So don’t support any unauthorized Twitter accounts and be sure to follow the official one. At the end of the day, it’s pretty good! This official website even has original character descriptions written by Watterson himself!

But even ultimately-er, copyright law is no match for the ingenuity of the “thieves and vandals” Watterson says have been the only ones to really profit off of the strip. Getting rid of all those “Calvin pissing” stickers proved to be as impossible as getting piss out of the ocean, as Watterson himself has admitted in this Mental Floss interview: “long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.”

But that’s not precisely true. Because sure, Pissing Calvin may last a pretty long time… but if folks like @calvinn_hobbes have anything to do with it, what’s gonna last even longer… is the memes…

Calvin, Hobbes, Twitter, and Copyright