Steven Wilf, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Fictional Characters (and Copyright)’

What do pictures want? Echoing the famous question posed by art historian WJT Mitchell, this article interrogates that query within the skein of copyright law. The creation of a fictional character means seeing a possibly singular, inert image as having a past and a future, a panoply of emotional responses and, significantly, desires. Fictional characters are not copyrightable per se. Rather, protection stems from expression of those characters in copyrightable works. To determine whether fictional characters have reached the threshold of complexity worthy of copyright, courts inquire how well a character has been delineated.

For nearly a century, copyright has relied upon traditional round character literary analysis which looks at a character’s distinguishable features from the audience’s point of view. Recently, flat protagonist criticism examines whether the character serves as a proper vehicle for the author’s story. This article takes another approach – asking what the image is trying to tell us about its own absences, needs, and emotional lacunae. Beyond establishing protection, we need to query what protagonists are unworthy of copyright. I argue that stereotypes should be held to stricter scrutiny as creating insufficiently desiring characters.

Wilf, Steven, What We Talk About When We Talk About Fictional Characters (and Copyright) (April 19, 2020). Critical Analysis of Law, volume 7, no 1, 2020.

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