Jenny Everywhere, open-source hero

Copyrights Trademarks

Jenny Everywhere is an interesting concept: a comics character that tries to follow the intellectual property model of open-source software (such as the Mozilla web browser, the OpenOffice productivity suite, the Linux operating system, etc.) The idea is that, unlike the proprietary approach taken by so many software companies and nearly every comics publisher out there (from Marvel and DC, through the indies, and all the way to your typical zinester), the original creators of Jenny Everywhere are giving her away for anyone to use. In an era of unprecedented attention on creator rights and ownership, Jenny puts an odd twist on the question.

The concept of the character meshes nicely with the idea of open licencing. She’s called “the shifter”, a person who exists in all dimensions at once. As her creators explain it, her “super power” is to not be bound by continuity. Which is pretty much an essential aspect of any character so freely licenced.

She’s certainly not the only freely available comics character. For example, the Yellow Kid, the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, and Krazy Kat are all in the public domain, because the copyrights on them have expired. This is true of any character first published in 1922 or earlier. There are also some more recent characters who’ve moved into the public domain due to failure to register or renew the copyrights, back when that was still required.

She’s not the only character in the modern era to be openly licenced, either. I’ve heard of other characters whose creators have taken a “whatever” approach to other people using them. But as far as I know, Jenny is the first to have an explicit licence attached to her. Dave Sim - a long-time critic of corporate ownership of characters - has said that anyone is free to use Cerebus if they want. But he retains ownership of the trademarks (the name and logo for “Cerebus” and the distinctive likeness of his aardvark character), which would make it rather difficult for anyone else to publish their own Cerebus comics after Sim finishes next year. And he still controls the actual artwork and stories he and Gerhard have produced over the past couple decades, so bootleg reprints are also not allowed. He’s merely saying that if you want Cerebus to appear in a book you’re creating, go ahead. Just don’t expect him (or anyone else, really) to accept those stories as “canon”.

Jenny Everywhere is not in the public domain. Her creators have stipulated that a notice be included with any stories people produce: “The character of Jenny Everywhere is available for use by anyone, with only one condition. This paragraph must be included in any publication involving Jenny Everywhere, in order that others may use this property as they wish. All rights reversed.” This requirement by itself means they are explicitly not releasing all rights to the public. They are merely licencing her, free of charge, and with full creative freedom. They ask that people try to keep her generally “on model” and “in character”, and suggest how they’d like the character to be used, but given the terms under which they’re licensing her, they can’t enforce any of that. Of course, if you vary too much from the core of the character, you’ll have a difficult time convincing people that she’s really Jenny Everywhere. (Electric Blue Superman, anyone?)

This license is inspired by the various “free” or “open source” software licences (the two terms are pretty much interchangeable, despite some different shades of intent), but it varies from most of them. The requirement that the licence itself be included with any use of the character is typical of open-source software licences. The GNU General Public Licence is the best known free software licence and is quite a bit more complicated than this one. For example, it has provisions that require anyone distributing software licenced under the GPL to also provide the source code (including any changes they’ve made) and licence that under the GPL or another similar licence. This effectively requires that any changes or additions to a GPL program be given back to its developers… or anyone else.

The “source code” provision makes no sense in the comics context (which is why I prefer to call her “openly/freely licenced” rather than “open source”), but the “give it back” aspect could apply. However, Jenny’s creators don’t require that you relicence your own Jenny stories as freely as they’ve licenced the character. They don’t even claim any rights to your material for themselves. So if you don’t want people copying your Jenny story, you don’t have to let them. In this sense, the Jenny licence is more like the Lesser GPL, which allows developers to use and distribute GPL software libraries (the character of Jenny) for their proprietary software (proprietary comics).

Many people are under the impression that you cannot charge money for GPL-licenced software, but this is not actually true. If you use openly-licenced software, then add your own software on top of it, you can charge as much for that as you want. But the “free” part has to remain free. Likewise, the Jenny licence allows you to sell Jenny stories for money. But you can’t actually sell Jenny along with them. The right to use her comes along freely, meaning exclusivity or ownership isn’t possible. So you can’t submit Jenny stories to Epic Comics (because Marvel wants to own anything they take the trouble to publish).

Although there’s no formal “canon” of Jenny Everywhere stories, there is a form of official sanction for some of them. The original creators of Jenny produce a print edition in standard comicbook format, to which independent creators can submit their work. But like any publisher, they reserve the right not to accept whatever they don’t feel like accepting. Fortunately, this works a lot like using a creator-owned character: you can take your story and submit it to another publisher or even publish it yourself. In this sense, a freely-licenced character is as good as a creator-owned one.

They don’t specifically cover this on the web site, but I would say that “Jenny Everywhere” does not qualify for trademark protection. Unlike copyright, which you can assert once and hold onto without effort until your grandchildren are dead, trademark requires you to actively defend exclusive rights, and they don’t appear to be doing that. So go ahead and put the name “Jenny Everywhere” and her picture (your own drawing, not someone else’s) in big bright colors on the cover of your book.

Jenny’s an interesting experiment, and I hope more people follow its lead. Freely licenced software has been a Very Good Thing for the technology industry, allowing the kinds of innovation that the proprietary model doesn’t always foster. It has the potential to foster the same kind of creative innovation in the comics universe. Although I’m a strong proponent of the right of comics creators to retain ownership control of their creations, I think the decision to give up that control (but not ownership) is an admirable one. I plan to join in some of the ongoing discussions about Jenny and the Jenny licence. And I’d like to do a Jenny story, to participate in the process.

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