Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of virtual world and MMO fashion
When I shared my Second Life avatar inspired by Mass Effect's lead character yesterday I briefly touched on some of the concerns over copyright infringement that come with cosplaying in Second Life (or any other virtual world). I've been meaning to write about this issue in detail for some time, and this seems like a good window to finally do so. Ever since I joined SL I've loved dressing Iris up as different characters that inspire me. Sometimes that involves buying recreations of costumes like Shepard's, and sometimes it's just a matter of patching together different pieces to recreate it on my own as I did with the cast of AMC's Mad Men.
Am I a hypocrite for being against content theft, but supporting what's technically copyright and IP infringement in the form of cosplay? I don't think so, and here's why:
Cosplay is Celebration
Cosplay has a long history that mirrors the rise of fan culture in general, alongside fan fiction and fan art. Fans doing these activities aren't claiming the character as their own, but sharing their enthusiasm for them. The motivation is to share an appreciation for the original work with other people, either who have or haven't yet been exposed to it. It's free advertising, and more importantly it builds incredibly devoted communities around the original work. Yes, many cosplay fans make and sell their costumes (in RL and SL), but...
Cosplay is not Counterfeiting
"Is it the same if a fan of Chanel or the NFL makes their own 'celebratory' merchandise?" I hear you asking. Unlike cosplay, counterfeit brand items are almost always in direct competition with official brand products. These items are trying to masquerade as the real deal to get money from naive consumers. Official cosplay items are relatively rare, and most often are molded or cast accessories that are hard for cosplayers to accurately replicate on their own anyway. It's almost like the companies want to help cosplayers.
Companies Love (and Encourage) Cosplay Because It Benefits Them
Most companies producing the media that cosplayers are basing their work on love cosplay. They sponsor conventions and events that will be packed with cosplayers and costume contests, and it's common for companies to host their own contests to hype a new release. In fact, when I did my avatar of Felicia Day's Tallis from Dragon Age II, BioWare (who also produces Mass Effect) was in the process of running an official Tallis cosplay and fanart contest. Why support people who are infringing on your copyright? As I mentioned earlier, things like cosplay help foster devoted communities, raise awareness of the game/movie/etc, and they don't take money out of the company's pocket by offering it as an alternative to the official product. No one wearing a RL fan-made N7 costume instead of playing Mass Effect, nor are they doing so in SL with Arbalest's N7 armor.
While cosplay is a form of infringement, it is incredibly rare for companies to take action against it. They would gain little, especially compared to the damage done to their own communities (and customer base) as a result. There are some exceptions to this where legal action is common and fair: When a fan item is in direct competition with an official product, or when it uses resources taken directly from the original like art. In SL this takes the form of people ripping textures and models directly from a game and selling them in SL as their own fan work (or worse, as their own designs), which is absolutely content theft and something I refuse to support. When I cosplay in SL, I look hard and close at what I'm buying to avoid supporting fans who don't put real effort into their recreations. I've been comfortable with Arbalest for several fan costumes because their texture work is made up of simple patterns and shading as well as in-world effects like shiny prims. I don't mean that it looks bad, but it isn't identical to BioWare's own texturing style, and shows that they are putting honest effort to recreate from scratch.
There is a tremendous difference between cosplay (both real and virtual) and copyright violation. Though they may seem legally alike, they're very distinct in the eyes of the fans and the companies that support cosplay.Tweet
Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.