By Aaron Orheim
On April 11th Jim Gaffigan joined a growing number of comedians and self-released a 75 minute comedy special. Traditionally, production companies pay comedians for a performance, tape it, and then sell the content fraught with copyright protections. The ultimate price consumers pay for the content reflects the costs of marketing, distribution, and enforcing copyright. Owners of copyright enjoy great protection under Title 17 of the U.S.C. and often sue unauthorized users in expensive lawsuits.
Gaffigan followed a model first explored by Louis C.K. He independently produced, edited, and distributed his comedy special. Fans can download the special for five dollars, far below the cost of a traditional comedy DVD. Additionally, consumers enjoy unrestricted use of the video file once they purchase it from the comedian’s website. As Louis C.K. puts it the file comes with, “[n]o [Digital Rights Management], no regional restrictions, no crap. You can download this file, play it as much as you like, burn it to a DVD, whatever.” So far Gaffian, C.K., and Aziz Ansari have all released comedy specials following this model to great success. C.K. made over one million dollars from his special after just twelve days. He donated a large portion of the proceeds to charity and gave substantial bonuses the people who helped produce the special. Each comedian relies solely on word-of-mouth advertising, advertising bolstered by social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.
As more comedians and artists experiment with self-produced content, production companies feel the pinch. Consumers are attracted to this content, due to its low cost the lack of restriction placed on its use. C.K. claims that he may never go back to traditionally produced specials; due the success of his first venture, few could blame him. Production companies may want to rethink their reliance on copyright protection if it means losing some of the most popular performers available.
Self-production has not killed the traditional model yet. Gaffigan, C.K., and Ansari are all well-known, established comedians. An up-and-coming talent may not have the capital needed to self-produce a special or the fan base needed to advertise it. For these acts, production companies like HBO or Comedy Central are still the best option for selling a comedy special. However, the day may soon come when comedians can establish a sufficient following, through social media, to skip this step completely. Even young comedians value Twitter followers and recognize that this fan base may be the key to success in the 21st Century.
These developments call into question the future of copyright law. In world of YouTube and Twitter, many artists increasingly prefer freedom over restriction. Now that’s quite a stand to take.