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Boilerplate Speaks!

In the lengthy Comment thread below Joe Miller’s post on Boilerplate, “Boilerplate” writes:

Some info for your discussions: Prior to the writing of “Shroud of the Thwacker”, the Boilerplate site had been repeatedly described by mainstream press as a comedic faux-history. A U.S. News & World Report reporter said “Boilerplate works because of people’s gullibility rather than Guinan’s guile”. Every page had (and still has) a copyright and trademark notice. There were (and are) several pages devoted to disclaimers. A graphic novel “Heartbreakers Meet Boilerplate,” featuring Boilerplate, was published in July. In “Shroud of the Thwacker” Boilerplate and his equally fictitious inventor Proffessor Archibald Campion play pivotal roles in the plot and resolution, and there are multiple drawings of Boilerplate. The book also contains lines of text that are worded the same as lines from the Boilerplate stories.

If the URL behind the Comment is authentic, this is either Paul Guinan or Boilerplate himself, channeling its creator, and if so, I’m delighted to have the information. And thanks for reading and posting!

The question is whether the information changes anything.

The most generous reading of the Comment is that Boilerplate is, in fact, a highly creative work of authorship, and everyone — including Chris Elliott — either did know as much or should have. (Chris Elliott, then, turns out to be just as naive in real life as his on-screen persona.) All of my “cultural bait-and-switch” hand-wringing in the Comments is beside the point. Boilerplate his case by pointing out that some sentences of Elliott’s book are copied, apparently verbatim, from the Boilerplate graphic novel. That certainly makes things look worse for Elliott, and rightly so as an equitable matter (though I understood previously that the claim was infringement of the “character,” rather than infringement of the graphic novel). On this reading, Guinan has invoked a garden-variety copyright claim and is entitled either to what Elliott will give him voluntarily, or to what the courts will give him otherwise.

A less generous reading may be in order, however. Focus on the quotation from U.S. News: “Boilerplate works because of people’s gullibility.” If Guinan is resting his claim on the naivete and ignorance of the American public, he’s in good company. But my cultural bait-and-switch theory would stand. I don’t think that Boilerplate is entitled to the benefit of a gullible readership and the full force of copyright, too.

The bottom line is that copyright is a public institution. No author or creator gets a free ride simply by declaring, “I have made it,” whether that declaration comes via copyright notice, or disclaimer, or public acclaim for the creation. To paraphrase a movie quotation, the public has rights.