October 2009

"Specific, closed cultures like that surrounding comic books have allowed voices to be heard that might not have been audible in a world in which all cultural texts speak the same common language."

Matthew J. Pustz, Comic Book Culture

This article discusses the historic genesis of one company's development of a portal and platform system that enables creators and their fans to work collaboratively between different mediums such as sequential art, graphica, concept, gaming, film/TV, and music. We examine challenges that arose and which are common to many startups. These include the protection of the intellectual property rights (IPR) of all parties, using open source software development to develop the portal, and the financial and personal toll that arises over the course of a startup's journey.

Open Source Creation: the Analog Version

The monasteries of the dark ages had their own form of open source content: the Latin Vulgate bible of Jerome of Stridonium. While the copying (or "coding") of the text had to remain faithful to the original, the platform of the book was open to interpretation by the individual team of monks who took on the tasks required to produce each bible. The skins of young animals such as calves, goats, or deer were labouriously stretched, scraped, and then pumiced until they were smooth enough to be cut into pages. Inks and paints were prepared from a variety of plants and mineral ores. Hoarded coins were spent on exotic dyes such as indigo and the gem lapis lazuli (imported from Northern Afghanistan) which would be ground down to create a celestial blue. Gold was hammered into the thinnest of sheets so as to make key letters literally shine out from the text.

Different team members had specialized skills. Some were the copyists, working painstakingly from the original text. Others worked as illustrators, creating monograms so fanciful that they were almost illegible. One monk might specialize in illustrations of flowers, another in animals, yet another in knot work, and others in images of the Christian pantheon. Each team member was necessary to create the dazzling books which were both a tribute to the faith of the monks and a visually stunning reminder of the importance of the information held within the only book most Europeans living during the Dark Ages would ever behold. The co-operative division of labour allowed the bibles to be created relatively quickly and to an artistic standard that would have been impossible had only one creator been involved.

In the 1980's, Ottawa's Aircel Comics fell into a similar model almost accidentally. When the Aircel insulation factory lost a government contract that provided much of its business, staff member Barry Blair convinced the owner to let him use empty factory space to start his own company. Soon after, a group of young creators worked together in a controlled frenzy to produce over a dozen 26-page titles each and every month. One of their comic books, Men in Black, was made into two hugely successful films. Writers came up with storylines and scripts, pencilers created the detailed page spreads that acted as guides to the inkers who used a variety of line weights to create mood, physical impact, and depth. Letterers filled the dialogue balloons and narrative boxes. Colourists worked from referenced templates within the limits of the flat colouring effects available from the budget-conscious printing processes then used to produce comic books.

Certain templates had to be adhered to such as character traits, appearances, past storylines, and printing technology parameters. However, the creators had a great deal of freedom to interact with the works of other artists and writers. This was an unusual and creatively exciting situation, as most artists typically work in solitary conditions. It was also one that Ucreatecomics.com co-founder and Aircel production and creative team member Donald Lanouette would remember fondly.

Open Source Creation: the Digital Horizon

In 1994, excited by Computer Aided Design (CAD) technology and the nascent capabilities of the Internet, Donald Lanouette returned to Ottawa. He was determined to recreate a new group studio, one that was not limited by geographic access. He wanted to create an online platform where visual artists, writers, and even fans could work together on sequential art forms such as graphic novels and daily editorial strips. He soon discovered that the expense involved in creating the software and the bandwidth needed to support the huge graphic files made the project unfeasible. Over the next decade, the idea of a vast, virtual studio for people interested in sequential art continued to interest him.

In 2006, he met Jason Daley, a former marketer in the technology industry with a passion for the production aspects of film/TV, another forum that fuses multiple creators and huge cooperative efforts. They formed Ucreate Media and found their third team member in Ian Hlavats, a cutting-edge software developer and an accomplished flamenco guitarist. Already a committed participant in open source software development, Ian was intrigued by the challenge of building a platform that would make it possible for creators to meet and work together online, while giving interactive access to fans and businesses with an interest in comics, film/TV, music, and gaming. The cost of bandwidth and processing power had decreased to the point where the idea was economically possible. Further, most visual artists and writers now either worked with digital formats or had easy access to the technology they would need to use the Ucreate portal.

Ucreate Media saw business potential in creating a collective of social media sites, designed to acquire and develop creative content with commercial potential. The controlled and mentored environment would unite fans with creators and build channels between traditional and new media outlets. The software for the platform needed to: i) be secure yet interactive; ii) foster artistic collaboration through ease of use; and iii) be expandable to permit user-driven suggestions for alterations and augmentations as creators and fans gave rise to possibilities currently unimagined.

Ucreate Media decided to focus on the comic book portal as the first platform because the process had not yet reached the same point of digitalization as other media areas. The Ucreate Software Platform was developed with a number of open source technologies that include; the MySQL database, JBoss Application Server, the JavaServer Faces (JSF) web application framework, and the Hibernate persistence and query service. During the process of integrating the open source technologies into the platform, Ian Hlavats discovered and submitted many bug reports to the open source projects and beta tested many open source technologies. He continues to be active as a resource in supporting other developers using the technologies. He exemplifies the fundamental concept of shared knowledge and expertise creating excellence that drives open source programming.

Challenges

Building an open source creative platform had some unexpected challenges. The UCreate Software Platform is a fully featured Java web application running on the Java Enterprise Edition platform. The presentation layer is based on the JSF framework and includes a RESTful web service application programming interface (API) and FTP protocol support. The middle tier or business layer is implemented using Enterprise JavaBeansTM (EJB) technology and the Java Message Service (JMS) for robustness and scalability. The data access layer is implemented using the Java Persistence API (JPA) and the Java Content Repository (JCR) API. It was anticipated that the software development would be more complex than initially hoped, but six months turned into a year, then two years and finally three years before the portal was ready for beta testing.

It became apparent that shared creation could fall afoul of copyright protection laws, restricting the envisaged free-flowing collaboration of visual and text creators working within the various IPR such as those created in-house by Ucreate Media, existing commercial IPR brought to Ucreate platform users to expand upon, and the IPR generated by creative brainstorming between Ucreate portal users.

In order to solve this issue, Ucreate competitions are put out under the CC BY-NC-SA Creative Commons Licence. Creating the options and rights contracts for members of the platform who won the user-driven creative competitions meant another significant financial outlay in legal fees. This was exacerbated by the high degree of legal specialization necessary to ensure that the corporation, creators, and member users were all protected. The decision to put resources into the drafting of these documents was based upon the long history of costly legal difficulties that have resulted from groups of creators working together without sound legal contracts in place. Although it was tempting to skimp now, it was acknowledged that it could be expensive over the long term.

The energy needed by the three founders to stay motivated and on track was sometimes difficult to maintain. The economic stress created whenever a startup's business principals invest the majority of their time and career effort over several years into a business unable to generate revenue until it is launched can create problems on the home front. This is where the value of multiple partners with different perspectives is valuable, as each can encourage the others through times when quitting may seem like the best option.

Evolution

Ucreatecomics was conceived as a site where artists and writers would work with Ucreate IP, competing for fan votes in order to win freelance contracts and garner unbiased opinions of entertainment properties for development. The concept evolved into a user-driven website where the majority of members would be fans who would drive the direction of creative members' efforts.

As even more features were developed, especially the interactive communications tools for inter-member connection and feedback, it became apparent that the site would also function as a social media network for creators and their fans. Through the use of crowd funding, fans will directly influence the entertainment projects that move forward through the Ucreate process. Currently, creators and key fans are being invited to beta test the platform and discover the potential to develop their professional skills as they work with each other. Writers, visual artists, musicians, CGI experts, and fans can all provide ideas, feedback, resources, competition and support, all of which are intended to nurture innovative and intriguing IP.

The next step is the creation of a fund for the purpose of seeding concepts that Ucreate Media will develop and incubate across multiple revenue drivers. Although made possible through technology, the heart of open source creation goes back to age-old human imperatives: the need to create and to critique, edit, and expand upon that which has been created.

Conclusion

Open source creation made possible by computer technology can transcend geography, culture, economic class, and the technical skills required within traditional visual arts, literature, and music that separate creator from consumer. Ucreate Media's portal democratizes the creative process by allowing all users to vote on which projects move forward to be realized in both traditional and new media.

The information in this article was based upon materials provided by Jason Daley, Ian Hlavats, and Donald Lanouette.

 

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