Internet writers have been banging away online for years, throwing out some great ideas and then developing them on public forums in collaboration with other writers. It took a couple of decades from when they first started doing it, but the inevitable has finally happened: Hollywood has taken an interest in, and acquired rights to, one of those stories. The interesting question is, what rights can Hollywood really have in it?
The story in question, Rome, Sweet Rome, is the sort of time-travel-alternate-history story that Eric Flint has been writing for Baen for years in his 1632 universe. It involves a group of U.S. Marines who get sent back in time to fight the Roman Empire. It grew out of speculation on Reddit, with the support of interested Redditors who contributed suggestions. And then its writer, James Erwin, sold the movie rights to Warner Brothers—and promptly stopped contributing to Reddit altogether, explaining:
Unfortunately, I have not been able to spend time on Reddit. This is not because I think I’m too big for my britches now. The Internet is a chaotic, give-and-take place – and that creates nightmares for a lawyered-up industry based on locked-down IP rights. In a perfect world, I would be in that subreddit every day – but that’s not what’s best for the project. I want this to succeed, and that unfortunately meant going dark for a while. I hope the folks in the RomeSweetRome subreddit see this little mash note. I miss em.
As Mike Masnick points out at Techdirt, it’s sad that the community that supported the story so far doesn’t get to be a part of its further development for film. But that’s not the most interesting thing.
The most interesting thing is that Reddit’s site license grants Reddit a nonexclusive right to use and develop user-submitted content, including commercially—which means that if Reddit wanted to license Rome, Sweet Rome to a competing studio, it would be within its rights to do so. (Not that sending modern-day soldiers back in time to fight a past era’s war is exactly a new idea anyhow. Even before Eric Flint, there were The Final Countdown and I’m sure plenty of other such stories I’ve never heard of.)
Jerry Birenz, the copyright agent for Reddit, says that, in theory, multiple parties might be able to license the story simultaneously, but wouldn’t comment further, and Reddit executives also declined to comment. Warner Brothers declined to make any statement save that it “has obtained exclusive rights to Rome, Sweet Rome". (Reddit is owned by major publisher Condé Nast, so it’s not as if it would have any shortage of lawyers itself if necessary.)
I have no doubt that Warner Brothers was aware of Reddit’s license terms going into the agreement with Erwin, but apparently the company felt the story was compelling enough that it was worth the risk. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out—and whether any other online-written stories attract movie studio attention in the aftermath.