As you may be aware, the 1966 Batman television show is, at long last, getting released on home video. Despite airing in syndication for years, a byzantine morass of legal paperwork kept anyone from actually putting it out on VHS tapes or LaserDiscs or any of the other formats that have come and gone since the 1960s. The rights were equally co-owned by 20th Century Fox and Greenway Productions until 1991, when Greenway’s owner died and left his share of the rights split his kids and his lawyers. Nothing could be produced until and unless all five owners agreed on everything.
(As a curious aside, Fox was not involved in the Batman movie and thus there were fewer legal issues to deal with; it has been available in a variety of home video formats since 1985.)
I’ll point you to Wired’s recent piece detailing all the legal wrangling that happened to get the long-awaited release, but the short version is that, after countless hours scouring through decades-old paperwork, a fan named John Stacks was able to get some of that in front an eagle-eyed producer who found a legal loophole. It took a few years, but it was that loophole that eventually led to coalesce the ownership and thus make it possible to get the DVD/Blu-ray sets produced.
Stacks reward in all of this amounts to the satisfaction of seeing the series released. He received no compensation for his efforts—in fact, he had to spend a fair chunk of his own money to do all the research—and he’s not creditted on the discs anywhere. As far as I know, he’s not even being given a complimentary copy of the final set.
Of course, legally, no one owes Stacks anything here. But Fox (the current and sole owner) stands to earn a huge amount of money off this release, largely thanks to Stacks’ detective work—work that they had long since given up on, believing it would not be profitable to pursue. And it may well have been unprofitable if they had to pay a team of lawyers who-knows-how-long to sort through that paperwork to discover that loophole. But because that work was done for free, they’re able to cash in.
That’s hardly uncommon. There are fans of all sorts uncovering esoteric tidbits for their own purposes, and corportations capitalizing on that. Sometimes they’ll offer a small token, but that seems to come most often from a specific individual at the company who appreciates the fan’s efforts, and is not a matter of company policy.
Is that fair for a corporation to take advantage of a fan’s love like that? Is that ethical? I suspect most people would say no. But that’s how corporations work; they exploit every financial advantage they can to increase their own profits. In some respects, it’s no different than a restaurant charging two dollars for 3¢ worth of sugar water.
For some, they might be okay with that satisfaction of knowing they helped their favorite book/show/movie gain a wider audience. And if that’s sufficient for them, fandom does indeed benefit. And while it’s disappointing that companies don’t generally reward fan efforts that earn them additional revenue, it’s hardly unexpected, so it might be worth considering by every fan who does work on/for/about an intellectual property owned by someone else.