In a recent essay cartoonist Scott R. Kurtz objected to the creation of new Peanuts content. This essay led me to consider the matter of aesthetic identity and the creation of this essay.
In the specific case of Peanuts, Charles Schulz was rather clear that he was the only one who could draw Peanuts. While there has been, as of this writing, no attempt to create new Peanuts strips, Boom Studios released a Peanuts comic book with new content that was not created by Schulz. There is also a rumor that the folks behind the movie Ice Age will be making a Peanuts movie written by Charles Schulz’s son and grandson.
Obviously, the continuation of characters and settings beyond the death of the original creator is nothing new. Nor is the transfer of creative control of characters and settings anything new. Characters such as Superman and Batman live on after their creators have died. Star Trek continued after the death of Gene Rodenberry with the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise and a new Star Trek movie. Frank Herbert’s Dune universe has spawned numerous books written after his death, including prequels. The same is true of Asimov’s Foundation series.
In general, the legal matters regarding the continuation of characters and settings when they are no longer in control of the original creator can be easily settled. After all, it seems rather well established that such intellectual properties are just that, properties. As such they can be inherited, bought and sold like any other property. So, if a company owns the legal rights to Peanuts, then they can do with Peanuts as they wish within the specifics of their rights. Naturally, there can be nasty legal battles and disputes when it comes to specific properties, but this is not anything special to such intellectual properties.
Since I am not a lawyer but a philosopher, I will not focus on the legal questions. I will, instead, focus on the philosophical matters.
One point of concern is the matter of ethics. To be specific, there is the moral question of whether or not the creations should be continued after the death of the creator. This can, of course, be tied to the legal concerns in many ways. If, for example, the creator agreed to this continuation in a contract or other agreement, then it would seem that the continuation would be morally acceptable. If the creator made it clear that s/he did not want the work continued, then even if someone (say a relative who inherited the property) had the legal right to continue the work, then doing so would seem morally dubious. This would also apply to cases in which characters and settings had entered the public domain. While people would have the legal right to use the characters and settings, there is still the moral question of whether or not they should do so—especially when their efforts degrade the characters and settings. For example, the John Carter movie is based on Burroughs’ works which are now public domain. However, the treatment of these excellent works was so awful that it seems that Disney acted in an immoral way by degrading the characters and settings with an inferior work. While the moral concerns are both interesting and important, I am also concerned with the matter of aesthetic identity.
Philosophers have disputed the matter of identity for quite some time and have focused on specific types of identity, such as personal identity. Fortunately, aesthetic identity can bypass many of the usual metaphysical problems regarding identity since the fictional characters and settings do not have the ontological status of actual people and settings (unless, of course, one believes that fictional worlds are also actual worlds). However, there are still concerns about identity in the context of aesthetics.
In the case of characters, the concern is similar to that of personal identity: when a character is continued by someone other than the original creator, is the character still the same character? To use a specific example, if someone else draws and writes Charlie Brown, is that character still Charlie Brown in terms of his aesthetic identity? Or is it just a character that looks similar and says similar things—a mere imitator? In some cases, it would seem that the continuity of aesthetic identity is possible. After all, it seems reasonable to claim that many comic book characters retain sufficient identity to still be the same characters even though they are drawn and scripted by different people (and played by different actors in movies). Interestingly, it can be argued that in some cases even the creator of a character fails to preserve the aesthetic identity of a character. What is needed, of course, is a full account of aesthetic identity of characters—a project that goes beyond this short essay.
In the case of settings, the aesthetic identity would also be a matter of concern. For example there is the question of whether or not the Dune universe in the newer prequels is similar enough to Herbert’s Dune universe in terms of its aesthetic qualities. While the identity of a setting would include the obvious factors such as getting the locations, inhabitants, history and such right, there is also the matter of capturing the “look and feel” of the setting. So, while a book might get all the facts about the Foundation universe right, it might fail to capture the aesthetic qualities that make the Foundation universe the Foundation universe. As with the aesthetic identity of characters, the specific conditions of the aesthetic identity of settings would also need to be developed.