A Redtail’s Dream for University IP Management


Two years ago, Minna Sundberg, an art and design student at the University of Art and Design (now Aalto University) in Helsinki, decided to create a web comic for “practice.” She started drawing a Redtail’s Dream (aRTD), a story pulling in bits of Finnish mythology about an irresponsible puppy spirit-fox that has trouble with the aurora (“fox-fire”) and sends an entire village into limbo-land, but for Hannu, a rather lazy young man and Ville, his faithful dog, who happen to be off in the woods rather than helping out with preparations for a festival. The spirit-fox, to avoid getting into trouble with the elder spirits, recruits Hannu and Ville to rescue the villagers from various dream world situations where they are stuck doing menial tasks they cannot find a way to complete so they can return to the world of the living. In each situation, Ville the dog finds himself shape-shifted into a different animal, but with dog ears and tail.

As Minna posted new pages, at a rate of six a week, in both Finnish and English, she developed a reading audience.  With her posts she provided brief comments on the progress of the story, and responded to reader comments. Minna gets interviewed (and here and here, and here too) and posts some comments about her project. She creates a Facebook page for the project, and and adds pictures from aRTD on her page at deviantART–both providing more dialogue with readers.

The project at completion runs to over 550 hand-drawn pages to tell the story of Puppy-fox, Hannu, and Ville. As the work develops, and the readership grows, aRTD gets noticed by the webcomic aggregating sites, and jumps into the top ten in some listings. On-line reviewers call out the wonderful drawings:

Art: The creator iterates throughout the About page and her comments that this is merely “intended to be a practice comic,” but it should be obvious to every reader that the artwork’s superior to just about any “real comic” out there. I’m hesitant to put her in the same category as some of webcomics’ “elite” artists, such as Tracy Butler, Aaron Diaz, and Sarah Ellerton; however, at only 22 years old, she’s a lot younger than they are. For those of you reading this who just want a quick glimpse of her abilities, the amount of talent displayed in this page is off the charts.

Reviewers like the family-friendly narrative but some consider the dialogue and character development limited, while others think the story gets at some deeper themes than one would expect for the premise and style. Minna becomes “someone” in the webcomic world. A fan creates a YouTube commercial.  Another starts making wooden pendants like the ones in the webcomic. Minna holds a “fan fiction” contest. In February 2013, Minna asks her readers what sort of book they might want, if she were to make the webcomic into a book. In response to a reader’s question about how she might sell copies, Minna describes what she is thinking of doing:

First through a collective crowdfunding/preorder campaign, and after that through the website in the regular way. I’m not planning to print a huge amount or anything, just enough to get everyone who wants one a copy and to keep a small stock to sell online over the span of maybe a year or two.

The discussion with and among readers turns to delivery strategies (not Canada Post or UPS, perhaps Amazon for North America) and the structure of a book version (printed, e-book, and the like). The readers co-design the book(s) they want.

This last September, Minna posts a project on Indiegogo, a crowd-funding site, to raise $29,000 for a limited run hardcopy edition of aRTD. Her readers prefer a book as a single bound volume rather than a series of shorter books. In 28 days, her web funding campaign raises $151,684 from 1441 contributors–$100,000 more than the previous highest total for a webcomic. As a result of the support, Minna was able to add additional elements to the print version, and add a nicer cover and binding.  At the $600 level of funding, 16 supporters will get an inked drawing of Ville “in whatever form you wish” and an original painting with Hannu and Ville, again drawn to the wishes of each supporter–plus all the other swag–postcard packs, pdf version, and the like.

Now that the print project is funded, Minna is posting a few pages a day for readers to proofread. The discussions there range from comma usage to wording, with regional and stylistic differences in play. Not only have readers established the format of the book, but they are also participating in shaping the final form of the story as well. Meanwhile, Minna is working to convert pages drawn for RGB video display into the CMYK color scheme used for print, changing page margins, and re-assembling everything for print.

What is the point of all this, beyond it is a nice outcome for a talented artist who has put two years of effort into producing a work that readers enjoy? The crowd funding part is of course worthy of mention. Why do people pay more than they would for an off-the-shelf product?  Why would they pay at all, given that the webcomic is already free, they’ve read it, and all? A “rational agent” approach makes no sense–even seems irrational. But these folks are perfectly reasonable:  they pay because they want Minna to be successful, they pay because they want a hard-cover or pdf book version, they pay because they want the community around aRTD to accomplish something, and they want to be part of that. These are reasonable things, and crowd funding provides a way for a community to develop and give back.

Not that crowd funding like this is anything new. In the 17th century, poetry–the webcomics of its day and other works–were often financed by subscriptions.  An author might write an essay or a chapter, circulate it privately (or have a publisher do so), and ask for subscribers to contribute for a fuller treatment or complete work. Once sufficient funds were raised, then the author would produce the rest, add a subscriber list, other introductory and dedicatory matter, and send the collection to the printer. Using this system, an author (or publisher) could gauge interest in the proposed work and offset much of the financial risk in preparing copies for print. Any sales beyond the circulation of copies to the subscriber list was gravy.

But more importantly, I want to talk about NIPIA–non-intellectual property intangible assets–and how these develop alongside assets such as intellectual property and provide a basis for value to be placed, if one chooses, in intellectual property. Of course, a Redtail’s Dream is floating in IP–there are copyrights in the artwork and story as well as the characters. There are copyrights in ancillary materials of all sorts–postcards, minicomics, and even designs on wooden pendants. There is also the semi-IP of the URL that Minna Sundberg leases for her homepage. Trademarks are waiting to be developed, and gloriously, there appear to be no patentable inventions whatsoever.

For all this flurry of IP, however, the value of the webcomic is not in the fact of copyrights and URLs, but in the NIPIA–in the talent of Minna Sundberg, in the reader community that has formed, the willingness of Minna to engage with that community, the reciprocity of that community to support her work. The visibility of a Redtail’s Dream in the webcomic community, links to the aRTD’s site. Clearly, the community reached a critical mass, and after that point acquired additional properties, such as externalities–readers encounter each other, having discussions in the comments on various pages of aRTD.

Minna Sundberg says aRTD is a “practice webcomic.” That may well be the case.  However, it is also the kind of story that lends itself, with its episodes, to the idea of a kind of game, with each episode featuring one or more problems to solve. This is the kind of thing that would work well for a family-like computer-based game. Could be simple, like Myst but without the creepiness. Or could be a more elaborate exploration game. Not that this is anything that Minna is considering. One could even see the characters ending up in an animated series, set in the same village, with the spirit-foxes and bears, and the bird path. The limitations of the webcomic narrative–the loose ends, the minimal account of motivation, the ending that leaves lots of questions–end up being strengths if the narrative is taken as a script–plenty of potential for how themes might be developed in other media formats.   I am not suggesting that aRTD should be “commercialized” in the Pink Floyd sense. But if one wanted to put a value on it, perhaps at some point one is talking serious money for rights to a family-friendly computer game or animated series with a richly drawn world, interesting characters, and engaging narrative.

It may never come to such a thing, but it’s clear that the initial effort–to produce something of creative merit, to make it persist over time, to attract an audience, and to engage with that audience as it becomes a community–is itself a form of NIPIA that has the potential to produce both IP and NIPIA. The underpinning for all this is that the work was provided to readers at no cost.  The investment by readers has been their time, and their discussion, and their interest. At present, nothing in aRTD appears to have been “licensed”; nothing “commercialized.” No one has been threatened with “infringement” for producing fan fiction and the like.  The first premise is that of gift, not that of monopoly.

Consider how such a thing works in the context of university-hosted “research” work by faculty and students. There is nothing particularly different–still the initial work is creative, though it might be software codes, data sets, experimental designs, 3d printing material recipes, or photographs. One can still make it available at no charge for use. The point is:  not only is there still a “market” for many such creations, but that this “market” is actually much more robust because the works are made openly available. Nothing requires one to go so far as “open source“–anyone can make any sort of change, and redistribute. One could use Creative Commons “share and share alike” or “non-commercial use” standard licenses.

One could also, for “inventive” stuff, use a general license such as Apache 2, or a simple make/use patent license that looks more like a non-assert than a tome of detailed fussy conditionals: “To the extent we have patent rights in this stuff, we give you permission to make and use it for your own purposes, commercial or personal. If you desire a written confirmation of this permission, contact us and we can work something out. If you want to sell anything based on the work presented here, we would love to hear from you.”  Not the high standard of the typical university patent license (“University hereby grants, and Licensor accepts, a limited, non-exclusive, royalty-free, world-wide license covering all fields of use in and to the Inventions and associated patent rights set forth on Attachment A, subject to the terms and conditions of this Agreement….”). But then, the high standard is not necessarily appropriate for the purpose.

A public grant of rights to prospective inventions as they are developed, and to associated works such as documentation, data, and software, allows for the development of NIPIA of all sorts. Visibility, centrality, community, externalities, strength of weak tie referrals, critical mass, congestion, channel, relationships, contracts, opportunities. In making such a grant, a university (or university inventor, in a better configured innovation world) gives up very little. Those expressing early interest have unfettered access. Technologists get to play with stuff. For this all to “work” one makes things available as they are created, and doesn’t hold things until there’s a huge pile, to be dumped out for use or “commercialization.” One works at it, puts things out timely, and stays on task. This is something akin to what happened with Open 3d Printing, which when it was active (it’s currently taking an extended rest) sparked a number of opportunities that came about because a teaching 3d printing lab was sharing out its findings, not holding them back in favor of speculative interests. The community is a great creator of “value”–not necessarily of the commercial kind that monopolists like, but of a kind in which you have friends who want you to succeed at whatever you do next, and when given a chance, are willing to help out with projects–with money, suggestions, referrals, services.

If university policies spent more time promoting open access that built up NIPIA value and less time worrying about “protection” that aimed to focus all value in IP at the expense of an early adopting community, folks would find that even the patent rights were more readily negotiated. The lucrative deals that folks so desire would still be there–the value is in the sell right, guys–so why not release stuff under a “University Public Make/Use License” the moment you get it? Sure, if you’ve got something patentable, kick in your patent application, which you pretty much have to do anyway in these first to file days. But then, publish the general public license to remove all uncertainty with regard to intentions. Don’t wait until there’s some speculative, sharing monopolist ready to take an exclusive license to “reserve” some paltry rights for “educational” use by the university. Put stuff out there, and if it proves helpful, then maybe that’s the time to do some subscription-based projects with specific goals, to produce stuff folks are willing to support. If the subscription goals are met, then–and only then–start thinking about how work might also be licensed, developed, or “commercialized.” And even then, not to shut down the open portion, but rather to run in parallel with it.

Yes, if every patent the university managed were going to become a commercial product, and every commercial product opportunity would be utterly destroyed if folks could make things for themselves instead of paying for a patent license, then one might worry the point. But the reality is, for 499 out of 500 university-claimed “inventions” there will never be a sharing monopolist showing up, there will never be a commercial product, there will never be lucrative payments for patent rights in a one-off, leave-no-money-on-the-table, no-repeat-business-expected deal.  So, no, one is not losing anything by being open. Indeed, by creating environments in which NIPIA can develop, and in which a community can get stuff, and use it, and benefit from it without interference, one sets up conditions that are much more favorable for later development of the “sale” and “import” patent rights.

Minna Sundberg’s experience with aRTD points the way. Get things out, hold on loosely, but don’t let go. Persist, respond, do good work. People respond to that. People want that sort of effort to succeed. Geoffrey Moore argues as much in Crossing the Chasm–the conservative buyers want choice, and want to choose the stronger option. This sort of open creates a fundamental choice, and lets a community form that wants their choice to prosper, get stronger, do even better stuff. If a 99.9% of a university’s inventive work was available in open formats, with a general make/use license from the get-go, there would be a renaissance in NIPIA value–visibility, capability, collaboration, community, new opportunities–that would create impact, spur innovation, and even, yes, for those that need to see it, generate revenue. My argument–and experience–is that this approach generates a 3 to 1 return or better, and does so with orders of magnitude more goodwill. University administrators would do well to restore their IP policies and practices to an open default and bring their institutions back to a mission of serving work to community, not seeking to withhold work from community.

[Update 10/21/2018: Sundberg raised $124,000 on Indiegogo to print book one of her webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent. She then raised $250,000 on Kickstarter to print book two. The webcomic is available “for free” on the web. Sundberg has an on-line store, is working on a game, and lets people log in to watch her draw pages for SSSS as the story line develops. Open, community-supported. What a concept.]

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