The last time we discussed Slender Man on this site, it was when two young girls stabbed their friend and blamed it on this internet ghost story, leading to the site Creepypasta feeling it needed to remind everyone that fiction is fiction and not the writings of a Satanic cult. Only briefly discussed in those writings was the origin of the Slender Man meme, which started as a Lovecraftian ghost story on the Something Awful forums by Eric Knudsen, who produced two photoshopped images of people being stalked by a faceless slender creep-bomb and added some fake quotations to make something of a story out of them. From those two photos and brief captions, the internet essentially took over, building entire stories and lore around Slender Man to the point where the whole thing is a wildly popular internet meme and ghost story staple.
So of course Sony Pictures bought the rights to the story from Knudsen and will now presumably ruin it all in a major motion picture. And that would be only mildly irritating, except Sony is also trying to bully a smaller studio, Phame Factory, out of producing its own horror movie, claiming it now has the copyright and trademark rights for Slender Man. This has resulted in Phame Factory suing Sony to get a court to declare its work not infringing.
The plaintiff in the case is Phame Factory, which had planned to digitally distribute a movie titled Flay only to get served with several cease-and-desist letters from Sony, which alleges that the main character in Flay blatantly copies the mysterious Slender Man, its bigger-budget horror flick set to be released Aug. 10. Phame Factory is now seeking a declaratory judgment that its promotion, distribution and advertisement of Flay doesn’t infringe Sony’s trademarks and copyrights. What’s more, Phame Factory asserts that Sony’s IP rights “are either indefinite, encompass free to use by all public domain property or lack the requisite legal requirements to be protectable and enforceable.”
What makes this case so intriguing is the origins of “Slender Man.”
There are all kinds of reasons why the court should side with Phame Factory here. The most straight forward of those reasons is that its own movie, Flay, doesn’t actually directly name or pertain to the Slender Man mystique that Knudsen developed. Yes, it features a similar generic character as the “monster”, a thin, faceless man. But that’s about as generic as it gets in ghost stories. Hell, the whole reason why Knudsen’s minimalist creation took off in wider internet culture was because of how vague a lump of clay it was for the creation of others.
And the creation of others is very much the second factor in all of this, not to mention the question about exactly what Knudsen had the rights to actually sell. The filing itself is essentially a repetition of Phame’s repeated request to Sony to explain what in the hell exactly it thinks is infringing in any of this, where Sony has refused to reply with anything other than, essentially, Flay’s existence. The problem for Sony here is two-fold. The bad guy character in Flay has marked differences with the Slender Man character other than a generic creepy appearance. On top of that, of all of the lore around Slender Man and that character archetype, the vast majority of it was not created by Knudsen, the person who signed over the rights to Sony.
If the Phame Factory case goes far, there could perhaps be similar exploration about who contributed what — and under what licensing scheme — back in 2009 on a message board. For now, Sony heads into a film release with an intriguing challenge to its intellectual property.
Here’s the summary that can best sum up how absurd Sony’s bullying is. Sony is now in court after threatening the makers of a film depicting a character that isn’t the same, over depictions that aren’t copyrightable generally, and over a character it bought the rights for from a person who barely created it in the first place.
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