On Monday, a fascinating article regarding commodification of memes was posted, in particular surrounding the use of a phrase from Hark! A Vagrant (a damn, damn fine comic that you should all be reading) on Grumpy Cat merchandise. It’s raised questions about ownership in the online sphere, about content created and adapted by the faceless creative collective of the internet. Is it moral to sell merchandise and content that has been built upon the ideas of other, uncredited people? Is it even legal?
So, speaking of faceless things, let’s take on this issue by picking a single online presence to go under the microscope: Slender Man.
For those of you who don’t know, Slender Man is terrifying. Often dubbed the “first internet urban legend”, it has reached far beyond the expectations for an internet scary story, particularly one with such humble beginnings. Slender Man actually originated on the website Something Awful, in a thread where members were challenged to create paranormal images. A user called Victor Surge, real name Eric Knudsen, created a series of images showing a tall, tentacle-armed figure that kidnapped children. It took the thread by storm, and before long Slender Man had moved beyond Knudsen’s vision.
Marble Hornets is the first, and most popular, Slender Man YouTube series. Its creators, Joseph DeLage and Troy Wagner, also used Something Awful, and were inspired by Knudsen’s images to create a vlog series that would evolve further into an ARG. The series was an instant hit, and is still one of the most frightening things to be found on the web.
Interestingly, the term ‘Slender Man’ is never used in the series – the being is called The Operator – and some parts of the Slender Man mythos, such as the tentacles, were removed. Marble Hornets, now in its third season, spawned various further Slender Man narratives, all adding and subtracting parts of the character to suit their own needs. Two more popular YouTube series were created, called EverymanHybrid and Tribe Twelve, as well as various blogs and stories.
Then, in 2012, Slender Man made its largest jump into the cultural consciousness. A free-to-play game called Slender: The Eight Pages, created by Parsec Productions, was a smash, loved by horror fans and picked up by a number of gaming sites. Before too long, Slender Man was a household name in geek circles, and with that came more projects. Many derivative games, including other strange, tall characters. The Slender Man, a Kickstarter project to make a feature film that successfully reached its target of $10,000. World domination beckoned for Slender Man, which is a terrifying thought for a creature that is partly deemed to get its power from the number of people who believe in its existence.
However, with these latest projects, the issue of ownership and creation really came to a fore. With Marble Hornets, Knudsen was accepting of their use of his character – after all, it was for a free series, certain aspects had been changed, and it was even born out of the same space – the Something Awful Photoshop thread. Knudsen even found it “interesting” that people were able to build upon his original images to create something more, although over time he has become more hesitant over his praise of other uses of Slender Man. One thing is clear – Knudsen has generally been happy for people to use the character, as long as it is not for profit.
And as such, there have been teething problems for a number of other projects. Although Faceless, a video game based on the Slender Man mythos, received the consent of Knudsen before creation, Steam – the online distribution service – refused to allow the game to be shared through their system until they had received permission from Knudsen themselves. Slender: The Arrival, a sequel to Slender: The Eight Pages, has licensed the character from Knudsen. This appears to have been necessary because unlike its predecessor, The Arrival is not free-to-play. Interestingly, the game was also written by the creators of Marble Hornets, meaning that the three largest influencers on the urban legend were all involved in the project.
The Slender Man movie has had less luck. After achieving its Kickstarter target, the film was completed and put online in 2013. However, the film was forced offline after legal action. This, in spite of the fact that the film was originally going to be a free online release. What caused the need for legal action by a mysterious third-party rights owner? The use of the name Slender Man? Or is it that the project had already gained money via Kickstarter? Either way, the film has had to change a variety of components before re-release, which we are told is coming soon.
And that’s the saga of Slender Man ownership up to date. So far Knudsen has, generally, been able to protect his creation from outside use, albeit with difficulty. But if Slender Man continues to grow as a narrative, how much longer can he keep control?