*update at bottom of the page*
So, just to start off, I like ThinkGeek — I really do. I’ve been a customer since 2003 and have literally spent thousands of dollars on their site (helped that my company used to give out prizes and I made sure to buy them at ThinkGeek. Also helped by the fact I’m a complete nerd.). I’ve bought stuff from them for my friends, my wife, and my kids. Hell, for me, they’re even based locally and I’ve enjoyed seeing them grow.
But with growth comes change — note I did not say ‘progress.’ As highlighted with the recent Jayne Hat issue, ThinkGeek has made a conscious decision to eschew crafter created pieces (which they used to carry a smattering of), and focus on mass-produced, licensed products. One can argue if it was an intended or unintended consequence, but part of the upshot of this is that FOX is now going after crafters of fan-created art on Etsy like a pack of hybrid lawyer-dementors. Reportedly this includes other Firefly-related items, but has mostly been focused on sellers of the aforementioned Jayne hats.
Sadly, the irony of mass producing a knit hat that in the show was handmade by Jayne’s mother is lost on ThinkGeek. Evidently also lost was what the impact of cease & desist orders would be on the crafters who had been selling these items for many years. (And let’s not forget the irony of FOX “protecting” the Firefly intellectual property when they’ve repeatedly done everything in their power to screw over the show itself.)
Now ThinkGeek could have done a number of things differently. They could have gone with an unlicensed hat and just called it something else — FOX doesn’t own the intellectual property of the style of hat (though I’d love to see them try and establish prior art for it!), just the association with Firefly and the character Jayne. Or they could have even said “Hey, we COULD mass produce this hat, but really part of the whole phenomenon of this is that they’re handmade, so maybe we just shouldn’t bother.” However, if they really felt there needed to be more Jayne hats in the world, as they told me in a tweet earlier today, why not think a little more boldly?
What I’m about to suggest is something I’ve tossed around as a business idea of my own for awhile and discussed with a number of friends — but let’s face it, I’m middle-aged, married, with kids and a mortgage — my days of startups are probably behind me. Instead, I’ll gift this idea to ThinkGeek in the hopes that they really do want to do the right thing (unless they want to hire me to help run it, in which case, let’s talk):
Imagine, if you will, the force for geeky goodness that ThinkGeek could be if they decided to create their own online storefront for geeky crafters? Instead of having to wade through billions of potential Regretsy items to find the real quality stuff, imagine going to thinkgeek.com and in addition to seeing Portal gun replicas and Annoy-a-trons, you could find handmade hats of an especially cunning design, handmade Chell costumes, and handmade hobbit pipes. That would be pretty fricking cool, wouldn’t?
Imagine the benefit to those geeky crafters, having their wares brought to the attention of folks already actively looking for geeky products? ThinkGeek wins, crafters win, and more importantly all the rest of us win. There is assistance and advice ThinkGeek is especially well suited to offer these small scale crafters, especially on shipping and possibly even on avoiding the traps of intellectual property infringement. Basically the only loser would be Etsy, and you know what? Screw Etsy.
For me, part of being a geek is tied into the maker culture — geeks tend to really like making things themselves or they have a lot of love and respect for those who can and do. If ThinkGeek followed my suggestion they could in essence offer the best of the entire geek world while remaining true to the spirit of what, at least to me, it means to be a geek.
Otherwise, they’ll continue to move to be a part of everything that runs counter to that spirit, and hurt crafters — the very ones who embrace that ethos with their time, energy, and hard work.
Finally, to be absolutely clear, FOX is the main bad guy here – but ThinkGeek can’t license from them without acknowledging that said license obligates FOX to pursue non-licensed sellers. That is part of the basis of a licensing agreement, part of which usually says something to the effect of “Hey, we’re going to pay you a bunch of money to be the official seller of this item representing intellectual property you own, and to protect that investment, you’re obligated to go after anyone else who tries.” That’s just what licensing is, so ThinkGeek’s fingerpointing at FOX and trying to act the innocent is disingenuous at best.
I wrote a post some years ago titled “Why I ❤ Crafters (and Other Artists) And You Should Too” in which I explained why I have so much respect and admiration for them. Towards the end of it, I wrote “…surround yourself with those who are creative and bring a little more beauty into existence, and you will find it easier to do the same.” I still very much believe that and it is advice I’d like to see ThinkGeek take to heart.
*Update April 9, 2013* So ThinkGeek has corrected themselves and now state that the manufacturer they worked with on the hats is actually the license holder. However, I still stand by what I said — the best that ThinkGeek can claim is that they decided to bring a mass-produced and inferior product to market that directly competes with what was offered by the geek crafting community. And they did so with a company that makes all of it’s money off of licenses, Ripple Junction — and I believe there is still information to be had about that company’s role in the cease and desist letters that went out. It’s extremely common for license holders to push to have C&Ds sent out to products they view as infringing on their license.
*Update April 10, 2013* See here