New Media Rights: Crowdfunding Legal Aid for CreatorsA game interview article by: David Fairbanks
Shaun Spalding represents New Media Rights, a legal organization that offers assistance to those who cannot afford what are often rather expensive fees associated with the work they do. Not only do they do this level of pro bono work, but they also have a series of informative videos that can help creative types immensely before even needing to contact a lawyer.
David Fairbanks for Comics Bulletin: While your Indiegogo campaign pretty well documents what it is that you at New Media Rights do, do you have an elevator pitch for our readers?
Shaun Spalding: New Media Rights is a non-profit program of California Western School of Law that provides free legal assistance to independent creative people and average internet users. If you are either starting a creative project and you want to prevent legal issues before they show up, OR if you get a letter from someone using their legal weight to bully you, you can come to us.
This type of assistance usually costs $300/hour or more from a private lawyer, and we give it away for FREE. What's the catch!? There is none. We're funded by grants and donations, so the only real catch is this...
To keep doing what we're doing, we need to have fundraisers like the one we're having right now each year. We rely on our community to share how much help we've been and allow us to continue what we're doing for another year. This way of funding the organization has been working since 2007, so hopefully people will continue to recognize that what we do is valuable and continue to pay it forward by donating.
And by now, we've reached the 20th floor, so I guess my elevator pitch is over.
CB: Why is it that a group like yours is necessary? What are the dangers to creators who have little or no consultation with legal experts?
Spalding: Imagine what would happen if you got a letter randomly from a lawyer that said, in capital letters YOUR PROJECT THAT YOU'VE WORKED FOR THREE YEARS ON IS VIOLATING STATUTE X,Y,Z OF THE UNITED STATES CODE. PLEASE STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING RIGHT NOW OR WE'LL SUE YOU IMMEDIATELY.
If you're a hobbyist game developer who knows nothing about the law, you'll either (A) believe these people because they're fancy lawyers who write letters in all caps, OR (B) you know enough to know they're wrong but have no idea how to defend yourself. You probably also won't have the type of money to hire a lawyer to defend your project, AND you'll probably be much too afraid of being sued to want to fight back. There goes three years of your hard work.
This applies to artists, graphic designers, writers, food bloggers -- pretty much everyone who is an independent creator. There's so much information online that we don't even notice when things get taken down. BUT the type of information that gets taken down is also often the most important because it's the most culturally relevant, it's the most controversial, and it's the most damaging to the type of people who have a lot of money to silence it.
The internet has created a world where anyone with enough talent can create a work at home that rivals the production quality of large media companies. The big issue is that these large media companies also have well-paid legal departments to help them comply with all the complex laws that are out there. Independent creators, especially hobbyists, really only have Google to rely on.
So that's why we're here. After you run out of information to Google, we can take your issue and do the more technical, skilled legal research. Or if you need some sort of document drafted or looked over, we can do that, too.
CB: Although we clearly cover video games, films, and TV here, we are primarily a comics site. Comics have had their own fair share of legal issues in recent times, with some cases earning national attention. It's easy to think that issues like the ownership of Superman are relics of the past being resolved today, but even now, among independent comics like The Walking Dead, there have been some serious legal issues. While we currently have the CBLDF, do you see NMR spreading out further?
Spalding: New Media Rights has actually worked with several comic creators, so we've already spread to that audience. One of the problems with promoting what we do is that, since we're lawyers, we're under confidentiality obligations. That means that we can't talk publicly about any of our the specific people or projects that we work with unless we get permission or the person publicizes what we've done for them themselves.
Some of our biggest successes are things we can never talk about. Sometimes working for New Media Rights is like working with the CIA. Or the Mafia, if the Mafia were full of friendly well-educated lawyers and law students who were committed to public service.
We've worked with comic book creators to help option their work, clear public domain art, and answer questions about the do's and don'ts of integrating real people into their books.
For other creators, which I hope also means comic creators someday, we've reviewed agreements that creators were going to enter into with large companies, drafted agreements between creative partners, and done pre-publication review for things like trademark infringement and defamation.
Long story short, our outlook is this: if any creator (whatever your field) can't pay $300/hour now for someone to review a three-year contract that you're about to sign, we want to make sure that we're there FOR FREE stepping in so you don't become an indentured servant for three years due to a lack of upfront cash.
This was the problem that early comics people like Siegel and Shuster had. This is still the same problem that people like Tony Moore ran into when starting to work with Robert Kirkman that ended up leading to a disintegrated friendship and a lawsuit years later. If we can spend 3-4 hours of our time preventing problems before they start, I think it's worth my time as a lawyer. And then maybe they'll end up donating to us later on when we ask them to each year.
As for the CBLDF, they help fund "strategic litigation" (inside court rooms) and do educational work as well.
What New Media Rights does is "preventative" and "transactional" work (drafting and analyzing agreements), not litigation. So, since we don't try to do the same thing, our work with comic book folks goes hand in hand with the CBLDF. There's no competing overlap.
So if anyone from the CBLDF is reading this, we'd love to talk more about how we can work with you! I've been trying to get our work on their radar for ages.
CB: You're fundraising via Indiegogo to allow New Media Rights to both continue functioning and to produce more of your informative video series. Are there plans for expansion?
Spalding: We're always interested in expanding into different areas, as long as those areas achieve the goal of making life better for independent creators. That's why we do policy work and educational work sometimes, in addition to doing direct assistance. Whatever we imagine will make the most impact at the time, we do.
We're also interested in "contracting" anything that's inefficient. A lot of non-profits have the idea that they have to always expand and do more things, but they waste money and time with that attitude because they end up doing things that may only partially meet their goals. Or they do things just because that's “the way they've always done things." Since New Media Rights is two people and a bunch of part-time volunteers, we don't have the luxury of doing things for the sake of doing things. We can only keep doing the things that are going to be most impactful.
That's one of the reasons we stopped "blogging." Why spend 100 hours a year writing articles that are buried on our website that 30,000 people will read in a year, when we can spend that time making a video series like LAGD that 75,000 people have already viewed in three weeks.
One reason why the fundraiser is so broad is that we want people who have good ideas about the direction of the organization to pay get those good ideas put into action. For example, for $2,500 you or your company can propose the topic for and sponsor a completely new educational series of videos that has nothing to do with any of the resources we have now. We want the people who fund us to be able to have a say in the issues with independent creators that they want to see fixed.
CB: What would you like to see at the future of New Media Rights?
Spalding: Future!? I'd like to ensure that we're around for another year, before I think about the future, and this fundraiser is really the way to do that.
Other than that, I'd like to actually do more with "for-fee" work. There are a lot of creators who aren't paupers but haven't exactly made any money yet. Those people can't afford to pay $300 - $500 an hour for a traditional private lawyer, but can pay something (maybe $100). Right now, we don't really have the staff to help those people. BUT if we charged enough nominal fees to be able to hire another person, we could meet that demand, too.
The future of the Internet is filled with new problematic legislation. The most significant beginning to this that people may be familiar with is SOPA. And now we're seeing random domain seizures, attacks on the campaign for net neutrality, and a constriction of the amount of unique voices and companies on the internet.
Think about it this way: even though more people are participating in discussions on the internet than ever before (low-income, elderly and rural populations now routinely create and share on the Internet) think about the places that people are sharing. You can probably only name a handful of companies where a majority of the activity is going on: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Tumblr.
There was a time everyone who shared had their own website. Now, we're being funneled to a handful of privately controlled "walled-gardens" that can dictate what is and isn't controversial on their services pretty arbitrarily. Those companies often don't have the time, support staff, or inclination to look at individual situations or stop legal bullies in their tracks.
That's why there's going to be a lot more demand for services like ours in the future, so I hope New Media Rights is still there to meet that demand.
David Fairbanks for Comics Bulletin: I generally do not get on a soap box here, but I really do believe that services like those provided by New Media Rights are incredibly necessary in this day and age. Please, if you have money to spare, consider donating to their Indiegogo campaign and ensure that creative folks who cannot afford legal aid are able to protect themselves.